Utne Reader visionary [Originally published as Susan Griffin in the January-February 1995 issue of Utne Reader]
In her 32-year writing career Susan Griffin has embraced poetry, drama, and nonfiction, but her earliest love was the movies. “I grew up right near Hollywood,” she says, “and I wanted to be a filmmaker. I loved Eisenstein and his montages, that juxtaposition of images.”
Griffin, 52, has preserved that love in a series of books that bring seemingly disparate images and ideas of sex, history, violence, the human body, the family, and the self together into montage fields that generate new ideas and freshen old ones. In Woman and Nature (1978) she layered harrowing historical documents into a meditation on Western culture’s habit of victimizing women and the natural world in parallel ways. In Pornography and Silence (1981) she interpreted porn as a way for men to deny in themselves the qualities they “see” in pornographic images of women—wantonness, passivity, sexual hunger. And in A Chorus of Stones (1992) she used stories from her family, the history of the American nuclear industry, and the biography of Joseph Goebbels to reflect on the complicity of silence and violence. (A book of essays and a meditation on illness are in the works.)
By refusing to respect the “commonsense” distinctions among historical, social, and personal issues, Griffin creates a kind of network of meaning in which everything illuminates everything else. And she sees a similar network awareness emerging in the world.
“Twenty-five years ago we saw many different movements for social change—around women’s issues, racism, civil liberties, anti-war sentiment, and ecology,” she says. “They were often in conflict with each other. But what’s becoming clearer now are strong strategic reasons for putting all the struggles together.” She cites New Guinea, where transnational corporations threaten not only native livelihood and the environment, but social structures and spiritual health as well.
Griffin’s close attention to the body and its place in history and society (“physical existence is meaningful in itself,” she says) allows her to make sharp distinctions between what is and isn’t “natural.” “How much worse can it get,” she asks, “than children killing children? Yet there are lots of reasons why males are violent, and they have more to do with tradition than testosterone. Masculinity is a terrible problem, as we construe it and shape it.”
Susan Griffin’s complex personal identity—Gentile-born adoptive child of a Jewish family, wife and mother who then came out as a lesbian—makes her what she calls a “bridge figure” and a particularly sensitive observer of the price we pay for maintaining illusory boundaries. “For example: I’d like these terms man and woman to be less important,” she says. “Gender is a way to hide from the simple truth we all tell: ‘Hey, I'm here, I have a body.’”