Cover image for Against memoir : complaints confessions + criticism / Michelle Tea.
Against memoir : complaints confessions + criticism / Michelle Tea.
First Feminist Press edition.
Publication Information:
New York, NY : The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2018.
Physical Description:
319 pages ; 21 cm
Art + music -- On Valerie Dolanas -- Andy Warhol's self-portrait -- Times Square -- On Erin Markey -- On Chelsea Girls -- Gene loves Jezebel -- Purple rain -- Minor threat -- Sonic youth's magic -- Love + queerness -- Transmissions from camp trans -- How to not be a queer douchebag -- Polishness -- Hard times -- Hags in your face -- My husband-wife -- Writing + life -- The city to a young girl -- Pigeon manifesto -- Lost jobs -- Telling your friends you're sober -- Sister spit feminism -- I had a miscarriage -- Baba -- Dire straits -- Against memoir.
"Valerie Solanas, a lesbian gang, recovering alcoholics, and teenagers surviving at a shop: these are some of the figures populating America's borders. These essays include fights and failures and the uncovering of and documentation of these lives. Michelle Tea reveals herself through these stories"-- Provided by publisher.
Personal Subject:


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
813.54 TEA Book Adult General Collection

On Order



Winner of the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay

"Eclectic and wide-ranging. . . . A palpable pain animates many of these essays, as well as a raucous joy and bright curiosity."--The New York Times

"Gorgeously punk-rock rebellious."--The A.V. Club

"The best essay collection I've read in years."--The New Republic

The razor-sharp but damaged Valerie Solanas, a doomed lesbian biker gang, recovering alcoholics, and teenagers barely surviving at an ice creamery: these are some of the larger-than-life, yet all-too-human figures populating America's fringes. Rife with never-ending fights and failures, theirs are the stories we too often try to forget. But in the process of excavating and documenting these queer lives, Michelle Tea also reveals herself in unexpected and heartbreaking ways.

Delivered with her signature honesty and dark humor, this is Tea's first-ever collection of journalistic writing. As she blurs the line between telling other people's stories and her own, she turns an investigative eye to the genre that's nurtured her entire career--memoir--and considers the price that art demands be paid from life.

Author Notes

Michelle Tea is the author of numerous books, includingBlack Wave,Valencia, andHow to Grow Up. She is the creator of the Sister Spit all-girl open mic and the 1997-1999 national tour, and founded RADAR Productions, a literary non-profit that oversees queer-centric projects. Currently she creates Amethyst Editions, a queer imprint of the Feminist Press.

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

Tea (The Chelsea Whistle) takes readers on a raucous tour through American counterculture, instructing readers in what it means, and has meant, to be a queer feminist in the United States. The essay collection pulses with frequently dark and often hilarious anecdotes from Tea's life, such as the difficulties of maintaining her punk-goth style of whiteface and mohawks. Her voice and message are brightest in her less personal essays, such as "Hags in Your Face," about a gang of punk rock lesbians- (many of whom would transition to male later in life) who roamed in packs in San Francisco's Mission neighborhood in the 1990s. In "Summer of Lost Jobs," Tea tactfully weaves tales of her teenage angst, alcoholism, and an encounter with Joey Ramone into an essay about the summer she was 16 and obsessed with fitting into the goth scene. Tea's prose is conversational, whether writing about her stint traveling the country as part of a lesbian spoken-word collective or delving into complex topics such as the harassment of young women as a product of misogynist culture. Queer counterculture beats loud and proud in Tea's stellar collection. (May) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

New York Review of Books Review

Two women essayists on coming of age in a culture with a violent fixation on female bodies. DEAD GIRLS Essays on Surviving an American Obsession By Alice Bolin 273 pp. William Morrow/HarperCollins Publishers. Paper, $15.99. AGAINST MEMOIR Complaints, Confessions & Criticisms By Michelle Tea 319 pp. Feminist Press. Paper, $18.95. "THE KEY element of any Dead Girl story is the investigator's haunted, semi-sexual obsession with the Dead Girl, or rather, the absence she has left," Alice Bolin writes in her deliciously dry, moody essay collection, "Dead Girls." Bolin's own obsession is nowhere near as lurid but just as fascinating. Once she spots the necrophiliac thread running through our culture - from "Twin Peaks" to "True Detective," and including every procedural ever made - she can't stop seeing it, can't stop thinking about what it would be like, as a girl who's alive and kicking, to occupy so much central, privileged space. The ubiquity of the popular narrative she comes to call the "Dead Girl Show" makes her think that the dead girl might be something she "could hitch my wagon to." This might seem an oddly static choice if it didn't prove so generative. "Dead Girls" is one of the latest entries in a welcome genre: coming-of-age stories about struggling to be seen in a culture that refuses to see you, at least not as a living, breathing person. The story that typically gets told instead - the Dead Girl Show - Bolin perceives as a modern-day fairy tale, with shadowy woods and an idyllic, small-town setting colored by "worshipful covetousness and violent rage" directed at "the highest sacrifice, the virgin martyr." The dead girl is usually not a girl but a young woman, and her death is usually not natural but intentional and violent. Her exemplar is Laura Palmer, of "Twin Peaks," an idea of a girl unconnected to reality. As Bolin observes, "Everyone loves the Dead Girl," but, of course, "that's why we love her: because she's dead, and her death is the catalyst for the fun of sleuthing." She's a blank slate onto which a male protagonist can project his fantasies, mostly about himself. Week after week, on episode after episode of "Dateline" and "Forensic Files," a male protagonist grapples with the meaning of the Dead Girl's death, and his identity becomes organized around hers - with none of her personality or perspective left to get in the way. The question of authority hovers over these essays - white, patriarchal authority. In the Dead Girl Show, the husband and the father loom large and dangerous. It's a given that the culprit in the killing is a male relative. At the same time, Bolin notes, the narrative (and the law) tend to favor him, making it easier for him to get away with it. Of course, the Dead Girl's status as "the perfect victim" has a way of "effacing the deaths of leagues of nonwhite or poor or ugly or disabled or immigrant or drug-addicted or gay or trans victims," and it does notescape Bolin's notice that the Dead Girl could be her, "the very face of white female complicity." Bolin began to write her book shortly after publishing a well-received essay about the series "True Detective" - a show about a troubled detective and a photogenically arranged female murder victim - and soon after moving from smalltown Idaho to Los Angeles, where she knew almost nobody and had few prospects. Her real-life move, which at first seems disconnected from the themes of the book, turns out to be integral to them. A naive young woman escapes her hometown - in the Northwest, a region renowned for its serial killers, she notes - for a big, indifferent city, where she soon loses her illusions (along with her wallet). This girl, who is not dead (though she might be a little bit dead inside), comes to the city in search of her missing self and finds only more anomie. It's a seductive story line that Bolin calls the "Hello to All That," after Joan Didion. Her favorite narratives in this genre also include Rachel Kushner's "The Flamethrowers" and Eileen Myles's "Chelsea Girls," both of which feature narrators who arrive in a city from nowhere and try "to assert themselves as artists, despite all appearances." It's easy to romanticize this plotline, Bolin writes, but "the sentimental education is hardly an innocuous trope, particularly when white American women, from the heroines of Henry James to the narrator of 'The Flamethrowers,' stand in for the innocence of their young country" - one in which the symbol of the Dead (white) Girl is often used to justify violence against others, to uphold a racist status quo. Michelle Tea's collection "Against Memoir" is more eclectic and wide-ranging, but it riffs on many of the same themes in swift, immediate prose. She, too, reconstructs her artistic and feminist coming of age through her cultural influences, revisiting scenes from a more turbulent youth. If Bolin's book is a lyrical meditation, Tea's is a good-natured slap. The book opens with a piece on Valerie Solanas, the infamous Andy Warhol shooter and author of the outlandish SCUM Manifesto, which Tea understood when she first encountered it "to be totally for real and totally not," in telling a truth "so absurd it's painful": that we live in a world where "men got to do anything to women and women got to walk around scared and traumatized and angry." A palpable pain animates many of these essays, as well as a raucous joy and bright curiosity. Having discovered that the stepfather she thought of as her dad had drilled holes in the walls of their house to spy on her and her sister, Tea writes, "He would have to deal with the shame of being caught, but he kept the house, the daughters had to flee. He kept the wife the daughters would never again be able to trust as a mother. He came into the family like an invasive parasite, killed it, and inhabited its dead body." It's a memorable image, and an emblematic one: Tea's essays tend to center on transformation, on one thing turning into another, even as they are stories of escape and resilience. Like Bolin, Tea also runs away from a nowhere town ("scabby old Chelsea, Massachusetts") to the city (first Tticson, then San Francisco), where she, too, discovers Myles's "Chelsea Girls." "For me, at 23, girls were the mystery, and drinking (being drunk) and writing was the mystery. Eileen Myles was deep in it, solving it, reporting from the inside." What strikes her about Myles's book is the experience of being buried alive in a culture - under the rubble of others' stories: "to have so much to say yet forced to claw out a place to say it with your own ragged, dirty fingernails." Her wild youth is now long enough ago that the period is shrouded for her in myth. An essay about the HAGS, young punk lesbians, many of them junkies, who lived and died (in scary numbers, from contaminated heroin) in San Francisco's Mission District back when the city was punk and queer and cheap and dangerous, and made space for "wild ruffians" and "gorgeous monsters," is especially haunting. But she's equally memorable on what it's like to be a young woman in the city, confronted daily with indecent exposure, or as they were called in the 1970s, "flashers"; on pigeons as despised urban fauna; and on longing and heartbreak. In both "Dead Girls" and "Against Memoir," the lure of autobiographical writing is also a longing to capture our experience of time, to trap us in a moment that is always passing. "You will never be in this precise state ever again," Tea writes. "Its marks lie all over the version of your story you are telling today." carina chocano is a contributing writer for The Times Magazine and the author of "You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Trainwrecks, & Other Mixed Messages," which won a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Library Journal Review

Author and poet Tea (Without a Net) covers the gamut of her experience in this unputdownable antimemoir, which consists of previously published articles, talks, essays, and reviews but mostly recollections of her experience as a queer activist. Valerie Solanas and Andy Warhol make star appearances at the start, but the book's core is devoted to an array of topics on queerness, transgender rights, childbirth, and romantic relationships of many types. Tea demonstrates admirable honesty on various subjects. The standout essay "How Not To Be a Queer Douchebag" is a prime example. Readers unfamiliar with the author should be advised that she is often explicit in her descriptions of sex, but they will likely understand her tone and not find the writings to be purposely offensive. VERDICT These charming essays deserve a wider readership beyond the LGBTQIA community, and since Tea is already well-known in those circles, it can be hoped that this will expand her audience.-David Azzolina, Univ. of -Pennsylvania Libs., -Philadelphia © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



My twenty-month old son sleeps in a twin bed on the floor of his bedroom, wedged into a corner so he doesn't tumble out, the corner stuffed with pillows so that he doesn't bonk his head during bouts of violent toddler sleep. I think there is something wrong with the corner; a bad Feng Shui, or perhaps a terrible energy has snagged there. In the haunted punk rock flophouse I spent my twenties in, my bandmate Cheryl once told me black balls of energy were roosting in the corners of my kitchen "like bats." Cheryl was clean and sober and Native American and a mystic; when she got into fights with people she prayed for them, which baffled and infuriated her enemies. I believe that there were bad energy bats flapping through that house because of the nightmares I'd had, the prickly sensations, the creaking floorboards and the shadows moving room to room. Classic haunted house bullshit. The transient roommate population tended toward the alcoholic and the pill-addled, smokers of crystal meth and injectors of ecstasy. People with badly compromised psychic immune systems. None of us would have felt the sting of the bad energy bats as they sank their fangs into our auras and sucked out all the pretty colors. Lying in my son's bed, as I do nearly every night, I wonder if the bad energy bats are with us, tucked into the spider-webby corner of his pale blue bedroom. He's been sleeping worse than usual, tossing and turning, crying tears through dreaming eyes. What do babies dream? Lying beside him one night, I too began to cry. At forty-five I seemed to have just realized I would never again be sixteen years old. I would never again feel what it feels like to be high on that particular mixture of youth and hormones, my still-pillowy brain not yet hardened to risk, everything possible, probable, permissible. When I think of being sixteen I think of wearing a very short black velvet dress, the torn hem dangling thread. My hair was home-bobbed, choppy and chunky, a harsh burnt-orange color, the result of a failed effort to bleach my hair out from a chemical black. I'm drunk, of course. Did I land on sixteen because drinking never felt as good as it did that summer, drunk in the Boston Common, making out with boys, riding in the trunk of my best friend's car all the way to Worcester to see The Cure? The ghost of this girl hovered just above my son's bed, flapping her black wings, and I wept. Later I texted my sister: I'm sobbing because I'll never be sixteen again. She texted back: I'm sorry you will never be sixteen again. That's a hard truth. And I'm sorry you have PMS. It was not bad energy bats, of course. Later I lay on the couch and tearfully live-Tweeted my period. Amidst feelings of intense greasy zit bloat absurd horniness gross. But then weeks later I lie in the same spot, and on the verge of falling asleep, have the startling revelation that there is no god. I get that feeling like stumbling from a curb; I jolt awake and quickly there are tears. My son, exhausted from kicking me repeatedly in the abdomen, sleeps through my jerk and sob. The despair is intense, the disappointment. This is all there is, a sprawling dark flash cracked like lightning the length of my universe. What will I pray to? I think dumbly. Oh, no more prayer. I realize that I actually love praying. Something I began skeptically on recommendation became a more habitual way to harness my mind became something that brings me real joy. I love sending love out to the world with my son each night as he falls asleep, even though he actually refuses love to most everyone. We send love from our hearts to Uncle Bear? No. We send love from our hearts to cousin Chloe and cousin Jude? No. Yes, we do, I insist, annoyed, and he responds, No, no, no, no no. Even a child can tell you there are no webs of magical energy strung between the hearts of those who love each other. I'm a fool. Everything fun about life seems gone. I cry myself to sleep. The next day I take a smoldering bundle of sage and walk it around the house, spending extra time in the corners above my son's bed. I tell my wife we've got to move it to a different part of the room, it's got bad Feng Shui. I tell her about my crying jags. What the fuck do I care about never being sixteen again? I rant. I hate nostalgia. Same for god or no god. I pray regardless, because it makes me feel good and even science has acknowledged it changes your brain. Changing my brain is my favorite high. I pop three Celexa a day with the intention of sinking new grooves into that busted record. Have you been taking your meds? She asks. Yup. This has to be a magical problem. It's hard to know where to put my son's bed. The room is small and cluttered with toys, with dressers and shelves. I lay down with him again, stretched out beneath the flap of the bad energy bats. Drowsy, I think about how in my last book I called an ex-boyfriend "Cruise Dude." Because he took me on a cruise, a bad cruise, the most miserable two weeks of my life, as is the point of the story. "Cruise Dude." I cringe. Why did I call him that? I feel utterly humiliated. We will never, ever be friends again; how could such a moniker ever be forgiven. "Dude," a shade less grotesque than "Bro." Named after a two-week getaway, no identity outside the bad feelings he gave me, barely a mention of the decades of friendship that preceded our doomed affair. I vaguely remembered a fuck it feeling as I wrestled with what to call him. Cruise Dude was a placeholder that stuck; mostly I didn't want to care too much about it. There is a certain stance you must take to write a memoir, a spell you cast upon yourself at the keyboard. You must not remember that your characters are actual people, people you once loved or maybe still do. Cruise Dude was brought into my memoir to illuminate a point, that I had dated people I shouldn't have, and thusly have learned hard romantic lessons. Still, why didn't I call him, like, Charles, or something? Shutting the laptop on that passage, I had smirked internally. Look - he didn't even warrant a name in the book of my life. That's what you get, Cruise Dude! If you don't like it - goes the memoirist's familiar refrain - you shoulda acted right! It felt good enough at the time. Now, in bed beneath the bad energy bats, a low-level shame pervaded my body. How petty. I always told students not to write for revenge, just tell the story, but when your story is I've been done wrong how can you help but steal a morsel of pleasure from the inherent vengeance of tattling? How can you, the wounded author, be trusted? If I understood the desire to confess, it would have saved me a great deal of unhappiness. That is neurologist Alice W. Flaherty in her book The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block and the Creative Brain. Neurologists have found that changes in a specific area of the brain can produce hypergrafia - the medical term for an overpowering desire to write. Flaherty herself became hypergrafic in the storm of a post-partum depression that followed the late-term miscarriage of twins. She had always been wordy, but now her pen flew off the margin. Her brain had been changed. When she became happily pregnant a second time, her brain was changed still and the writing mania came back. Mental illness is not completely separable from sanity, she writes. There is a sense in which mental illness is awfully like sanity - only much, much more so. I have always written. In second grade I started a class newspaper, The Schoolyard Gazette, of which I was the Editor, Publisher and sole Staff Writer. Chicken Pox Is Sweeping the Second Grade rang my first, sensationalist headline. I did the comics page, inking a crude heart coming at another heart with an axe; Don't go breaking my heart! the caption quipped. When I too fell victim to Chicken Pox I decided to use the time to pen my first novel. Using a paperback as a model, I removed the scratch-proof socks I had on my hands and got to it. Beginning at the beginning, I drew my cover. With a glance at the back, I wrote some blurbs boasting of the story's special genius. Then I had to write the actual book. I was stumped. I returned to an earlier project, a humorous re-writing of the dictionary, where Abundance, for example, was a social mixer for pastries. In fourth grade I took inspiration from the headlines of the garish Boston Herald American, the low-brow alternative to the Globe and what my grandfather read at the dinner table. When a young girl was finally killed by a mother who had long abused her, I wrote a fictionalized version and dedicated it to her memory. After scanning a piece about the unfair treatment endured by developmentally disabled individuals I penned a short story called The Retard's Sister. In it, a girl makes a wish that her sister die so that the horrible kids at her school will stop teasing her. And her sister does die, and the guilt is such that she will never again have a happy day for the rest of her punishingly long life. In fifth grade I wrote scripts for The Facts of Life, in particular one wherein Jo inveigles The Go-Go's to perform at a dance at Eastland Prep. In sixth grade I tried to adapt Judy Blume's Blubber into a play. In seventh grade I mainly wrote and rewrote Billy Idol lyrics into Lisa Frank notebooks. Then, when I was twenty-one, powerful things happened. I realized I could have sex with girls, and my life exploded. I realized all of society and culture was a misogynist conspiracy to oppress women, and that this web of oppression tangled with other oppressions, racism, say, or how people liked to beat up homeless people, or go fag-bashing; it linked up with anti-Semitism, Fascism. The connection between a police officer in Provincetown who would not allow me to sunbathe topless on the beach and the obliteration of generations at Buchenwald were so clear to me they stung my brain. When I called the cop a Nazi, I meant it. The way agriculture is produced, with chemicals, harvested by brown people sleeping in tents and pissing in the hot sun, was linked directly to slaughterhouses which was linked directly to American slavery. I stopped eating. My stepfather admitted he had been spying on me and my sister, for many years, through holes he'd carved into our walls. This was no different than my mother phoning our old landlord, a friend she had had a falling out with, to warn that a Haitian family was coming to view the apartment. None of this was any different than the dumping of nuclear waste into third-world dumps where workers brought the glowing material back to their children, to delight and kill them. My brain was thoroughly changed. I moved to San Francisco, and began writing. In earnest. I remember being inside a night club, sitting up on top of a jukebox, scribbling into my notebook by the light that escaped it. All around me the darkness writhed with throngs of females, their bodies striped and pierced, shaved and ornamented as any tribe anywhere, clad in animal skins, hurling themselves into one another with love. What feeling it filled me with. An alcoholic, an addict, I know what it is to crave and the need to take this story into my body was consuming. For years I sat alone at tables, drunk, writing out the story of everything I had ever known or seen. Hypergrafia manifests primarily as personal narratives, memoir. My brain did this to me. Excerpted from Against Memoir: Complaints, Confessions, and Criticisms by Michelle Tea All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Art & Music
On Valerie Solanasp. 13
Andy Warhol's Self-Portraitp. 28
Times Squarep. 32
On Erin Markeyp. 42
On Chelsea Girlsp. 50
Gene Loves Jezebelp. 57
Purple Rainp. 65
Minor Threatp. 71
Sonic Youths Magicp. 78
Love & Queerness
Transmissions from Camp Transp. 87
How to Not Be a Queer Douchebagp. 123
Polishnessp. 138
Hard Timesp. 159
HAGS in Your Facep. 166
How to Refer to My Husband-Wifep. 211
Writing & Life
The City to a Young Girlp. 217
Pigeon Manifestop. 237
Summer of Lost Jobsp. 240
Telling Your Friends You're Soberp. 260
Sister Spit Feminismp. 265
I Had a Miscarriagep. 274
Babap. 280
Dire Straitsp. 285
Against Memoirp. 305
Acknowledgmentsp. 319