When people write about Ellen Willis, they tend to write in the first person. A friend pointed this out last week, after listening to me complain about trying to write about No More Nice Girls. It was so good, I told her, I felt like anything I wrote wouldn’t be on its level, wouldn’t capture the complexity of the arguments Willis—radical feminist, visionary cultural critic, revolutionary intellectual and intellectual revolutionary—makes so lucidly and hilariously and persuasively. How to say anything about someone who said everything, and so well? And so I was having a hard time—harder than the usual time, which is always hard, and inevitably reminds me that I’m stuck in here for good, sentenced to a life inside myself, with nobody coming to release or replace me. Maybe this was why people keep resorting to memoir: there was only one Ellen Willis, the rest of us are ourselves, and so the best we can do is report, from the inside, what it feels like to encounter Ellen Willis.
But even that seemed sort of futile, like when we try to explain to strangers—or even our friends—what makes the people we love lovable: she’s so funny — he has the best smile — she makes such good arguments about abortion and pleasure and marriage and liberty and America at the end of the 20th century. No matter how thorough the list, it always feels incomplete, providing all the measurements but never a sense of what is being measured.
It’s not quite that tallying up all these things doesn’t get
the person I love–doesn’t add up to the exact, undeniable figure he or she cuts in my mind—but that I’m trying to get at someone who, for me, is already there, the irresistible presence behind all these traits—a singular force that reveals itself only in its entirety. Each quality is an expression of all the others: the person smiling is
the person who did X, and has Y, and is Z.
Willis brings her whole self to the table every time. Even comparatively light essays—the piece about the Picasso exhibit, the review of Fatal Attraction—bear the full weight of her intelligence, and of all the other pieces in the book, and so every page is never not expressing the fundamental principles that governed Willis’s life and work: radical democracy, as she defined it, “assumes that the purpose of community is to foster individual happiness and self-development; that the meaning of life lies in our capacity to experience and enjoy it fully; that freedom and eros are fundamentally intertwined; and that a genuine sense of responsibility to other human beings flows from the desire for connection, not subordination to family, Caesar, or God.” “Our own Declaration of Independence,” she reminds us later, “pronounces the pursuit of happiness an inalienable right. What if we really started taking this seriously—for everyone? Do I hear music?”
These are the last lines of No More Nice Girls, which is not so much a book as an event, a rock tossed in the stream of daily existence that alters its current forever. (Hence the impulse among readers to frame their responses as autobiographies: do religious converts review their revelations?) Not only does Willis reliably make her case, whatever it is, wittily, thoughtfully, and in good faith, but she herself is a kind of case study: this is what truly independent thinking looks like, this is what it means to live according to one’s beliefs. No More Nice Girls fills readers with the courage of someone else’s convictions, and instills in them a sense of duty, a desire to live up to the example set. To do Ellen Willis justice would take a lifetime—a life, really and differently lived. Still, evangelizing has its place: what if the apostles just sat around remembering all the great times they had with Jesus? Read this book and be changed.