Courtney Love is no one's role model, but she changed my life.
When I heard the news that Kurt Cobain had died, I was in the least rock and roll place imaginable: in the Nebraska state finals of the annual National Geographic National Geography Bee.
Everything about the event — the redundant awkwardness of its name, the plastic nametags we were required to pin to our unfashionably stiff official t-shirts, the squads of attending social studies teachers nervously dabbing at their dampening underarms with clumps of yellowing Kleenex — reeked with blatant uncoolness. I am a competitive person, but as an eighth-grader I was also excruciatingly self-conscious about such things, so when I was knocked out in the afternoon round by a possibly autistic Future Farmer of America with truly terrifying knowledge of plate tectonics in the Java Sea, my failure came as a massive relief. By the time I had made my way off the stage it was well past three o'clock so I called my friend Sam from a pay phone in the lobby to catch up on the news of the day. Through tears, she told me that the tortured voice of our generation had been found dead on the floor of his house on Lake Washington by an electrician come to install a new security system. The cold gun was still pointing towards his chin. The coroner estimated that he had lain there undiscovered for more than three days.
Courtney killed him, same as if she pulled the trigger herself.
I held the receiver by my side for a few moments, catching my breath. A gale of applause echoed from the auditorium as my bespectacled rival neatly dispatched a tricky question about the partition of the British Raj. "Wow," I said finally, with typical eloquence. "That sucks."
"Dude," my friend replied urgently, "You don't even know. It was crazy at school today. People were like, collapsing in the hallways. The counseling center set up, a special grief center, and we all had to go this emergency assembly about suicide prevention. I haven't seen people this upset since that deaf kid from shop class accidentally hung himself while he was masturbating."
"Yeah," I said. "That sucked too."
At school Monday morning, a girl sat wracked with sobs in front of my homeroom, cradling her backpack like an infant's corpse. "The only one who could understand me is gone," she wailed. A cascade of snot streamed from her nose into her open mouth, where it clung queasily to her tongue like a streak of untrimmed fat on a raw slab of meat. My classes were thickly peppered with dour boys in grimy Nirvana concert t-shirts. Sam informed that in honor of the fallen, they had vowed to not to remove them, nor to wash them, nor to wash themselves.
"Until when?" I said, alarmed. "Until he comes back to life?"
"Until they're ready," she said snappishly. "Until they've gotten to the acceptance stage of grief. You're still in denial."
"You're right," I said. Nearby, a boy named Randy Shoemaker, his oversized In Utero tee resplendent with streaks of unidentifiable filth, kicked a locker repeatedly, the heavy steel-toe of his worn Doc Marten meeting the cheap metal door with a sickening crunch. He managed at least ten kicks before one of the sad-eyed ex-Marines the public school system had hired to police our hallways spirited him roughly away. "I can't believe this is happening."
By lunchtime, it appeared that others had progressed directly to the anger stage. Their rage, however, was not directed not at the traditional targets — God, drugs, the deceased — but toward someone else entirely.
"That fucking cunt," Leslie Vorderman, a straw-haired girl with the face of a furious pumpkin, had taken the dull metal point of her geometry compass and carved the word "KURT" into her forearm, tracing the letters over and over again until they were etched indelibly into her flesh. I imagined it had been painful; the K in particular looked angry, throbbing and red, a fine crust of pus beginning to form at the indentation. "She fucking killed him, the fucking whore."
"Who?" I mouthed nervously.
"Courtney," Sarah Carpenter spat out the name, along with several gummy bits of government issued pasta salad, peppering the front of her flannel shirt. "She killed him, same as if she pulled the trigger herself."
Sarah Koslowski shrieked, "She tricked him into marrying her because she's the spawn of Satan, and she got him hooked on drugs, and now he's dead. I bet he didn't even do it. I'll bet you a million, trillion dollars she fucking had him killed."
Leslie Vorderman wrenched a fresh scab from the wound on her arm, wincing as she dabbed at the newly bubbling blood with a corner of her dingy paper napkin. "Don't do that!" I cried. "It'll scar."
"That's the fucking point," she hissed malevolently. "I want a fucking scar. I want it so that if I run into that bitch someday, I can shove in front of her ugly fat crack whore face. She deserves to die." The bloody napkin fluttered to the ground, where it came to rest a top a forgotten sandwich, the bread blackened and misshapen where someone had trodden on it in the rush to the door.
Four months ago, I would not have been sitting at this lunch table. But four months ago, I had been unceremoniously evicted from my tenuous position in the outer orbit of the preppy, "popular" clique, when my former "best friend," glimpsing a strategic opportunity for advancement, "accidentally" revealed my crush on the on-again off-again boyfriend of the school's Queen Bee. The depth of my feelings toward him, while embarrassing, were not in and of themselves grounds for expulsion — after all, half the school felt the same way. But unforgivable was the growing communal suspicion that he liked me too — a belief predicated on the slim but undeniable evidence that he had called me three times on the phone (twice for homework assignments, once just to talk), had kindly made sure I was invited to several parties and after-school hangout sessions from which I otherwise would almost certainly have been excluded, and had told several people he though I was pretty and that he would certainly be interested in seeing my boobs, should I wish to reveal them. Although I never attempted to act on this or any other invitation, I was swiftly (and publicly) put in my place. On the day of my formal ex-communication, I hid for more than four hours in one of the crumbling stalls of the girl's bathroom in the basement, shaking with grief and horror at my friend's betrayal, and figuring I would have to change schools.
It was when
the prepster conformists wouldn't have
that I realized
the inherent pointlessness
"It's not that I hate you," my ex-friend had smirked, when I tearfully asked her what I had done to make her turn on me like this. "But it's your own fault. You're the one who walks around in those tight shirts, smiling at him all the time. I had to let everyone know what a slut you are."
"I'm not a slut."
"No," she had said thoughtfully, "but you would be if you could be. I had to tell. Otherwise, I would have been a bad friend."
I never heard it suggested even in the subtlest way that the boy might be at fault. He went about his business, his friends, his basketball games with his place in the hierarchy intact. He never spoke to me again.
Luckily, it was almost Christmas, and during the break I was able to pull myself together and consider my options. As the Mean Girls had always given me the rationale that I had been left out of the inner circle because I was "too weird," I threw myself on the mercy of quite a different crowd of girls who held sullen court on the lawn before and after school, inexpertly smoking cigarettes and scribbling sorrowful slogans on the rubber edges of their Chuck Taylor One Stars. After all, I reasoned, at least we liked the same music. Despite the fuchsia streaks in my hair and a revised wardrobe newly acquired from Goodwill these girls treated me with palpable hostility at first, like expressionless C.I.A. operatives wearing down a Soviet defector to see where his real loyalties lay. I was endlessly, mercilessly questioned: Were the new streaks in my hair Kool-Aid or Manic Panic? What brand of cigarettes did I prefer, and how many could I smoke without throwing up? Most importantly, what had brought about this change? Had I actually come to see the inherent pointlessness of life, or was it just that the prepster conformists wouldn't have me anymore?
I answered, "It was when the prepster conformists wouldn't have me anymore that I realized the inherent pointlessness of life." With some surprise, I realized this was perfectly true. Some bullshit has a strange kind of power. I was in.
My new girlfriends didn't seem to enjoy my company much more than my old ones had, but I felt more secure with them. The petty undermining and backbiting — the ritual disclosure of secrets, the constant jockeying for position — that had so plagued my former life was kept to a minimum here. But now, hearing the people I had treated as my haven, my refuge from the pettiness, from the internalized misogyny that had characterized my previous female friendships — this festering, wrong-headed sense that all women were somehow natural enemies — was heartbreaking.
It wasn't that I saw Courtney Love as a role model. Even through the self-pitying opacity of my adolescent angst it was fairly clear to me that she had some pretty serious emotional problems, to say the least. But in the early nineties, emotional problems were de rigueur, and I couldn't help but feel that Courtney had gotten a bit of a raw deal in the public imagination. Yes, she was an opportunist. Yes, she probably had a personality disorder. Yes, she had used heroin while pregnant (allegedly!) But what about the man who (allegedly!) had used heroin right along with her all that time? The tortured, unstable, desperately unhappy man who had now departed the planet, leaving her alone with a baby, a drug problem, and an army of maniacal fans screaming for her blood? Wasn't it his kid, his problem, his life too?
It took a special kind of guts to be a fuck-up as a woman, I thought.
It took a special kind of guts to be a fuck-up as a woman, I thought. To say to hell with being a nice girl, the responsible one, the one who makes sure the man takes care of himself and eats properly and doesn't take too many drugs. To be just as nihilistic and self-destructive as a man, knowing all along that you'll get crucified for it, because somehow, the world will make everything your fault. He'll be a martyr, and you'll be a succubus. He'll be a genius, and you'll be a groupie. He'll be a hero, and you'll be an ugly fat crack whore who deserves to die.
"They should just turn her over to us," Sarah Koslowski was saying. "Mob justice."
Randy Shoemaker had appeared from nowhere, the heady ripeness of his body odor mixing with the thick scent of artificial cheese. "I hope she gets raped," he said, with terrifying matter-of-factness.
"Yeah," said his friend, a boy with greasy green hair whose name I didn't know. "Except you can't rape a whore."
The girls tittered.
"Shut up," I said.
Leslie Vorderman's giant head swiveled slowly in my direction. "What?"
"I said, shut up," I said, my voice gaining strength. "That's a disgusting thing to say. She lost her husband. She's a widow, with a baby. This isn't her fault."
"What are you saying?" Leslie's eyes cut through me like a rusty blade.
"That he shouldn't have done it," I said. "I think it's fucked up how everyone is blaming her. The girls are always blamed. He killed himself. And I don't care how depressed he was; I don't think that makes him a hero. If he were a hero, he'd still be alive for the people who need him. Including," I waved my hands shyly around the table, in a gesture of goodwill, "us."
Leslie shot to her feet. "You know what I think?" She didn't wait for me to answer before she thrust her wounded forearm in my face. The inflamed letters were less than an inch from my skin; I could smell the acrid metallic tang of fresh blood. "I think you're a fucking poseur."
She and the Sarah snatched up their orange plastic trays and flounced away. Randy Shoemaker threw a napkin towards me in half-hearted disgust, and he and his green-haired friend too were gone.
"That's okay," I said to myself softly. "I can think of worse things to be." n°
From the book Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists edited by Courtney E. Martin and J. Courtney Sullivan. Excerpted by arrangement with Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2010
Photography by Daisy Blecker.