Sometimes in atheist and skeptic circles, we like to say we don’t have heroes. We do. We may try to keep from granting them epistemological authority because of that status, but we still grant it. Any endeavor that is meant to inspire will produce heroes.
It was a relief, then, when Christopher Hitchens died, to see so many people, even those who looked up to Hitchens as a hero to atheists, acknowledge his terrible flaws. (Yes, they were terrible. People who move the world enough to be heroes don’t tend to do things by halves.) It was also a relief to see that few people insisted those terrible flaws invalidated all that Hitchens had done for organized atheism.
Similarly, now, it is good to see the same process happening with Adrienne Rich, the feminist poet and activist who died earlier this week. She inspired many, but she also hurt many, some of them people she inpired, and those people are working to come to grips with her legacy.
When the news came across the internet yesterday that Adrienne Rich had died, my first response was a painful welling of sorrow that she was gone, because her contributions to American poetry and the lives of innumerable women have been uncountable. Her contribution to my own writing has been tremendous. But then I felt a different kind of sorrow, because I couldn’t just mourn her without complication. I had to ask myself about her transmisogyny, which has been largely overlooked in the wash of admiration. What I needed to know was whether or not she had ever disavowed statements about trans women in which she called them “castrated men” and other hateful things. I needed to know whether she had ever stepped back from her friendship and collaboration with Janice Raymond, who made a career out of her virulent, dangerous hatred of trans women.
I can’t just think, “Oh, well, she was a poet, and she changed poetry, so her views on trans women are private and don’t matter.” That would be dangerous, and it would also be untrue.
It’s not like Adrienne Rich existed in a vacuum, or as if she wrote a century ago. She lived and worked now. We admire Susan B. Anthony, but acknowledge her racism, to use an example from Rich’s Blood, Bread, and Poetry. In the essay “Resisting Amnesia: History and Personal Life,” from 1983, Rich writes that she and her friends and colleagues were challenged to deal with the whiteness prevalent in the feminist movement, that they had to carry on Anthony’s legacy of progress while at the same time making a point of dismantling her legacy of false inclusion. In fact, part of what I find most troubling is that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of pages of Rich’s writing in the world in which she faces her own history head on. She readily accepts that she, and most other white feminists, have a lot of work to do about not merely “including,” but really listening to and welcoming people of color, not-Christians, and others into their movement. And yet…
I hope all of us who work to inspire and to change the world can learn this lesson. We will leave complicated legacies, no matter what, if we have any legacy at all. The least we can do is try to learn the lessons of our complicated heroes and apply them in our own work.