Living My Life
by Emma Goldman
New York: Alfred A Knopf Inc., 1931.
I HAD BEGGED MOST NOT TO GIVE THE TIME OF MY ARRIVAL TO THE German Union in Rochester, before which I was to speak. I wanted to see my beloved sister Helena first. I had written her about my coming, but not the purpose of my visit. She met me at the station and we clung to each other as if we had been separated for decades.
I explained to Helena my mission in Rochester. She stared at me open-mouthed. How could I undertake such a thing, face an audience? I had been away only six months; what could I have learned in such a brief time? Where did I get the courage? And in Rochester, of all cities! Our parents would never get over the shock.
I had never before been angry with Helena; there never had been occasion for it. In fact, it was always I who tried her patience to the breaking-point. But the reference to our parents made me wroth. It brought back Popelan, Helena's crushed young love for Susha, and all the other ghastly pictures. I broke out in a bitter arraignment of our people, especially picking out my father, whose harshness had been the nightmare of my childhood, and whose tyranny had held me even after my marriage. I reproached Helena for having allowed our parents to rob her of her youth. "They came near doing it to me, too!" I cried. I had finished with them when they joined the Rochester bigots and cast me out. My life was now my own, the work I had chosen more precious to me than my life! Nothing could take me from it, least of all consideration for my parents.
The pain in my darling's face checked me. I took her in my arms and assured her that there was nothing to worry about, that our family need not know about my plans. The meeting was to be only before a German union; no publicity would be connected with it. Besides, the Jews on St. Joseph's Street knew nothing about the advanced Germans, or about anything else, for that matter, outside of their own colourless, petty lives. Helena brightened up. She said that if my public speech was as eloquent as my arguments to her, I would make a hit.
When I faced the audience the next evening, my mind was a blank. I could not remember a single word of my notes. I shut my eyes for an instant; then something strange happened. In a flash I saw it --- every incident of my three years in Rochester: the Garson factory, its drudgery and humiliation, the failure of my marriage, the Chicago crime. The last words of August Spies rang in my cars: "Our silence will speak louder than the voices you strangle today."
I began to speak. Words I had never heard myself utter before came pouring forth, faster and faster. They came with passionate intensity; they painted images of the heroic men on the gallows, their glowing vision of an ideal life, rich with comfort and beauty: men and women radiant in freedom, children transformed by joy and all affection. The audience had vanished, the hall itself had disappeared, I was conscious only of my own words, of my ecstatic song.
I stopped. Tumultuous applause rolled over me, the buzzing of voices, people telling me something I could not understand. Then I heard someone quite close to me: "It was an inspired speech; but what about the eight-hour struggle? You've said nothing about that." I felt hurled down from my exalted heights, crushed. I told the chairman I was too tired to answer questions, and I went home feeling ill in body and mind. I let myself quietly into Helena's apartment and threw myself on the bed in my clothes.
Exasperation with Most for forcing the tour on me, anger with myself for having so easily succumbed to his influence, the conviction that I had cheated the audience --- all seethed in my mind together with a new revelation. I could sway people with words! Strange and magic words that welled up from within me, from some unfamiliar depth. I wept with the joy of knowing.
I went to Buffalo, determined to make another effort. The preliminaries of the meeting threw me into the same nervous tension, but when I faced the audience, there were no visions to inflame my mind. In an endless, repetitious manner I made my speech about the waste of energy and time the eight-hour struggle involved, scoffing at the stupidity of the workers who fought for such trifles. At the end of what seemed to me several hours I was complimented on my clear and logical presentation. Some questions were asked, and I answered them with a sureness that brooked no gainsaying. But on the way home from the meeting my heart was heavy. No words of exaltation had come to me, and how could one hope to reach other hearts when one's own remained cold? I decided to wire Most the next morning, begging him to relieve me of the necessity of going to Cleveland. I could not bear to repeat once more the meaningless prattle.
After a night's sleep my decision seemed childish and weak. How could I give up so soon? Would Most have given up like that? Would Sasha? Well, I, too, would go on. I took the train for Cleveland.
The meeting was large and animated. It was a Saturday night, and the workers attended with their wives and children. Everybody drank. I was surrounded by a group, offered refreshments, and asked questions. How did I happen to come into the movement? Was I German? What was I doing for a living? The petty curiosity of people supposed to be interested in the most advanced ideas reminded me of the Rochester grilling on the day of my arrival in America. It made me thoroughly angry.
The gist of my talk was the same as in Buffalo, but the form was different. It was a sarcastic arraignment, not of the system or of the capitalists, but of the workers themselves --- their readiness to give up a great future for some small temporary gains. The audience seemed to enjoy being handled in such an outspoken manner. They roared in some places, and in others vigorously applauded. It was not a meeting; it was a circus, and I was the clown!
A man in the front row who had attracted my attention by his white hair and lean, haggard face rose to speak. He said that he understood my impatience with such small demands as a few hours less a day, or a few dollars more a week. It was legitimate for young people to take time lightly. But what were men of his age to do? They were not likely to live to see the ultimate overthrow of the capitalist system. Were they also to forgo the release of perhaps two hours a day from the hated work? That was all they could hope to see realized in their lifetime. Should they deny themselves even that small achievement? Should they never have a little more time for reading or being out in the open? Why not be fair to people chained to the block?
The man's earnestness, his clear analysis of the principle involved in the eight-hour struggle, brought home to me the falsity of Most's position. I realized I was committing a crime against myself and the workers by serving as a parrot repeating Most's views. I understood why I had failed to reach my audience. I had taken refuge in cheap jokes and bitter thrusts against the toilers to cover up my own inner lack of conviction. My first public experience did not bring the result Most had hoped for, but it taught me a valuable lesson. It cured me somewhat of my childlike faith in the infallibility of my teacher and impressed on me the need of independent thinking.
In New York my friends had prepared a grand reception for me; our flat was spotlessly clean and filled with flowers. They were eager for an account of my tour and they felt apprehensive of the effect upon Most of my changed attitude.
The next evening I went out with Most, again to Terrace Garden. He had grown younger during my two weeks' absence: his rough beard was trimmed neatly and he wore a natty new grey suit, a red carnation in his buttonhole. He joined me in a gay mood, presenting me with a large bouquet of violets. The two weeks of my absence had been unbearably long, he said, and he had reproached himself for having let me go just when we had grown so close. But now he would never again let me go --- not alone, anyhow.
I tried several times to tell him about my trip, hurt to the quick that he had not asked about it. He had sent me forth against my will, he had been so eager to make a great speaker of me; was he not interested to know whether I had proved an apt pupil?
Yes, of course, he replied. But he had already received the reports from Rochester that I had been eloquent, from Buffalo that my presentation had silenced all opponents, and from Cleveland that I had flayed the dullards with biting sarcasm. "What about my own reactions?" I asked. "Don't you want me to tell you about that?" "Yes, another time." Now he wanted only to feel me near-his Blondkopf, his little girl-woman.
I flared up, declaring I would not be treated as a mere female. I blurted out that I would never again follow blindly, that I had made a fool of myself, that the five-minute speech of the old worker had convinced me more than all his persuasive phrases. I talked on, my listener keeping very silent. When I had finished, he called the waiter and paid the bill. I followed him out.
On the street he burst out in a storm of abuse. He had reared a viper, a snake, a heartless coquette, who had played with him like a cat with a mouse. He had sent me out to plead his cause and I had betrayed him. I was like the rest, but he would not stand for it. He would rather cut me out of his heart right now than have me as a lukewarm friend. "Who is not with me is against me," he shouted; "I will not have it otherwise!" A great sadness overwhelmed me, as if I had just experienced an irreparable loss.
Returning to our flat, I collapsed. My friends were disturbed and did everything to soothe me. I related the story from beginning to end, even to the violets I had mechanically carried home. Sasha grew indignant. "Violets at the height of winter, with thousands out of work and hungry!" he exclaimed. He had always said that Most was a spendthrift, living at the expense of the movement. And what kind of a revolutionist was I, anyway, to accept Most's favours? Didn't I know that he only cared for women physically? Most of the Germans were that way. They considered women only as females. I would have to choose once for all between Most and him. Most was no longer a revolutionist; he had gone back on the Cause.
Angrily he left the house, and I remained bewildered, bruised, with my new-found world in debris at my feet. A gentle hand took mine, led me quietly into my room, and left me. It was Fedya.
Soon a new call came to me, of workers on strike, and I followed it eagerly. It came from Joseph Barondess, whom I had previously met; he was of the group of young Jewish socialists and anarchists who had organized the cloakmakers and other Yiddish unions. The aggregation numbered more informed men and abler speakers than Barondess, but he stood out by reason of his greater simplicity. There was no bombast about this attractive, lanky chap. His mind was not of a scholarly type; it was of a practical turn. He was just the man the workers needed to help them in their daily struggle. Barondess was now at the head of the union, directing the cloakmakers' strike.
Everybody on the East Side who was able to say a few words in public was drawn into the struggle. They were nearly all men, except Annie Netter, a young girl who had already made a name for herself by her untiring activity in the anarchist and labour ranks. She had been one of the most intelligent and indefatigable women workers in various strikes, including those of the Knights of Labor, an organization which had been for a number of years the storm-centre of the intense campaigns of the eighties. It had reached its zenith in the eight-hour fight led by Parsons, Spies, Fielden and the other men who had died in Chicago. It began its downward course when Terence V. Powderly, Grand Master of the Knights of Labor, had allied himself with the enemies of his comrades who were being rushed to their doom. It was well known that Powderly, in return for thirty pieces of silver, had helped to pull the strings that strangled the men in Chicago. Militant workers withdrew from the Knights of Labor, and it became a dumping-ground for unscrupulous job-hunters.
Annie Netter had been among the first to turn from the Judas organization. She was now a member of the Pioneers of Liberty, to which most of the active Jewish anarchists in New York belonged. An ardent worker, she gave unstintingly of her time and meagre earnings. In her efforts she was sustained by her father who had developed himself out of religious orthodoxy to atheism and socialism. He was a man of exceptional quality, a great scholar, of warm humanity, a lover of life and youth. The Netter home, behind their little grocery store, became the oasis for the radical element, an intellectual centre. Mrs. Netter kept open house: the samovar and a generous spread of zakusky were never off the table. We young rebels were appreciative, if not profitable, customers of the Netter grocery.
I had never known a real home. At the Netters' I basked in the sunny atmosphere of the beautiful understanding that existed between the parents and their children. The gatherings there were intensely interesting, the evenings spent in discussions, enlivened by the entertaining banter of our kindly host. Among the frequenters were some very able young men whose names were well known in the New York ghetto; among others, David Edelstadt, a fine idealistic nature, a spiritual petrel whose songs of revolt were beloved by every Yiddish-speaking radical. Then there was Bovshover, who wrote under the name of Basil Dahl, a high-strung and impulsive man of exceptional poetic gifts. Young Michael Cohn, M. Katz, Girzhdansky, Louis, and other young men of ability and promise used to meet at the Netters', all helping to make the evenings real intellectual feasts. Joseph Barondess often participated, and it was he who sent for me to help in the strike.
I threw myself into the work with all the ardour of my being and I became absorbed in it to the exclusion of everything else. My task was to get the girls in the trade to join the strike. For that purpose meetings, concerts, socials, and dances were organized. At these affairs it was not difficult to press upon the girls the need of making common cause with their striking brothers. I had to speak often and I became less and less disturbed when on the platform. My faith in the justice of the strike helped me to dramatize my talks and to carry conviction. Within a few weeks my work brought scores of girls into the ranks of the strikers.
I became alive once more. At the dances I was one of the most untiring and gayest. One evening a cousin of Sasha, a young boy, took me aside. With a grave face, as if he were about to announce the death of a dear comrade, he whispered to me that it did not behoove an agitator to dance. Certainly not with such reckless abandon, anyway. It was undignified for one who was on the way to become a force in the anarchist movement. My frivolity would only hurt the Cause.
I grew furious at the impudent interference of the boy. I told him to mind his own business, I was tired of having the Cause constantly thrown into my face. I did not believe that a Cause which stood for, a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to became a nun and that the movement should not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. "I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody's right to beautiful, radiant things." Anarchism meant that to me, and I would live it in spite of the whole world --- prisons, persecution, everything. Yes, even in spite of the condemnation of my own closest comrades I would live my beautiful ideal.
I had worked myself into a passion, my voice ringing out. I found myself surrounded by many people. There was applause, mingled with protests that I was wrong, that one must consider the Cause above everything. All the Russian revolutionists had done that, they had never been conscious of self. It was nothing but narrow egotism to want to enjoy anything that would take one away from the movement. In the hubbub Sasha's voice was the loudest.
I turned in his direction. He was standing near Anna Minkin. I had noticed their growing interest in each other long before our last altercation. Sasha had then moved out of our flat, where Anna used to be almost a daily visitor. It was now the first time in weeks that I had seen either of them. My heart contracted with yearning for my impetuous, headstrong lover. I longed to call him by the name he loved best, Dushenka - to stretch out my arms to him --- but his face was set, his eyes full of reproach, and I checked myself. I danced no more that evening.
Presently I was called into the committee room, where I found Joseph Barondess and other strike leaders already at work. Next to Barondess I noticed Professor T. H. Garside, a Scotchman, formerly lecturer for the Knights of Labor, and now at the head of the strike. Garside was about thirty-five, tall, pale, and languid-looking. His manner was gentle and ingratiating, and he resembled somewhat the pictures of Christ. He was always trying to pacify conflicting elements, to smooth things over.
Garside informed us that the strike would be lost if we did not consent to a compromise. I disagreed with him and objected to his proposal. Several members of the committee upheld me, but Garside's influence prevailed. The strike was settled according to his suggestions.
The strenuous weeks of the strike now gave way to less arduous activities: lectures, evenings at the Netters' or at our flat, and efforts to secure employment again. Fedya had begun to work with crayons, enlarging photographs; he declared that he could not keep on wasting our money, Helen's and mine, on paints. He felt he would never become a great painter, anyway. I suspected it was something else: no doubt his desire to earn money so that he could relieve me of hard work.
I had not been feeling very well, especially during periods, on which occasions I always had to take to bed, in excruciating pain for days. It had been so since my great shock when Mother slapped my face. It grew worse when I caught a cold on our way from Königsberg to St. Petersburg. We had to be smuggled across the border, Mother, my two brothers, and I. It was in the latter part of 1881 and the winter was particularly severe. The smugglers had told Mother that we would have to wade through deep snow, even across a half-frozen brook. Mother worried about me because I was taken sick a few days earlier than my time, owing to the excitement of our departure from Königsberg. At five in the morning, shivering with cold and fear, we started out. Soon we reached the brook that separated the German and Russian frontiers. The very anticipation of the icy water was paralysing, but there was no escape; we had to plunge in or be overtaken and perhaps shot by soldiers patrolling the border. A few roubles finally induced them to turn their backs, but they had cautioned us to be quick.
We plunged in, Mother loaded with bundles and I carrying my little brother. The sudden chill froze my blood; then I felt a stinging sensation in my spine, abdomen, and legs, as if I were being pierced with hot irons. I wanted to scream, but terror of the soldiers checked me. Soon we were over, and the stinging ceased; but my teeth kept chattering and I was in a hot sweat. We ran as fast as we could to the inn on the Russian side. I was given hot tea with maliny, packed in hot bricks, and covered with a large feather bed. I felt feverish all the way to St. Petersburg, and the pain in my spine and legs was racking. I was laid up for weeks, and my spine remained weak for years afterwards.
In America I had consulted Solotaroff about my trouble, and he took me to a specialist, who urged an operation. He seemed surprised that I could have stood my condition so long and that I had been at all able to have physical contact. My friends informed me that the physician had said I would never be free from pain, or experience full sexual release, unless I submitted to the operation.
Solotaroff asked me whether I had ever wanted a baby. "Because if you have the operation," he explained, "you will be able to have a child. So far your condition has made that impossible."
A child! I had loved children madly, ever since I could remember. As a little girl I used to look with envious eyes on the strange little babies our neighbour's daughter played with, dressing them up and putting them to sleep. I was told they were not real babies, they were only dolls, although to me they were living things because they were so beautiful. I longed for dolls, but I never had any.
When my brother Herman was born, I was only four years old. He replaced the need of dolls in my life. The arrival of little Leibale two years later filled me with ecstatic joy. I was always near him, rocking and singing him to sleep. Once when he was about a year old, Mother put him in my bed. After she left, the child began to cry. He must be hungry, I thought. I remembered how Mother gave him the breast. I, too, would give him my breast. I picked him up in my arms and pressed his little mouth close to me, rocking and cooing and urging him to drink. Instead he began to choke, turned blue in the face, and gasped for breath. Mother came running in and demanded to know what I had done to Baby. I explained. She broke out into laughter, then slapped and scolded me. I wept, not from pain, but because my breast had no milk for Leibale.
My compassion for our servant Amalia had surely been due to the circumstance that she was going to have ein Kindchen. I loved babies passionately, and now - now I might have a child of my own and experience for the first time the mystery and wonder of motherhood! I closed my eyes in blissful day-dreaming.
A cruel hand clutched at my heart. My ghastly childhood stood before me, my hunger for affection, which Mother was unable to satisfy. Father's harshness towards the children, his violent outbreaks, his beating my sisters and me. Two frightful experiences were particularly fresh in my mind: Once Father lashed me with a strap so that my little brother Herman, awakened by my cries, came running up and bit Father on the calf. The lashing stopped. Helena took me to her room, bathed my bruised back, brought me milk, held me to her heart, her tears mingling with mine, while Father outside was raging: "I'll kill her! I will kill that brat! I will teach her to obey!"
Another time, in Königsberg, my people, having lost everything in Popelan, were too poor to afford decent schooling for Herman and myself. The city's rabbi, a distant relative, had promised to arrange the matter, but he insisted on monthly reports of our behaviour and progress at school. I hated it as a humiliation that outraged me, but I had to carry the report. One day I was given a low mark for bad behaviour. I went home in trembling fear. I could not face Father --- I showed my paper to Mother. She began to cry, said that I would be their ruin, that I was an ungrateful and willful child, and that she would have to let Father see the paper. But she would plead with him for me, although I did not deserve it. I walked away from her with a heavy heart. At our bay window I looked out over the fields in the distance. Children were playing there; they seemed to belong to another world --- there never had been much play in my life. A strange thought came to me: how wonderful it would be if I were stricken with some consuming disease! It would surely soften Father's heart. I had never known him soft save on Sukkess, the autumnal holiday of rejoicing. Father did not drink, except a little on certain Jewish fêtes, on this day especially. Then he would grow jolly, gather the children about him, promise us new dresses and toys. It was the one bright spot in our lives and we always eagerly looked forward to it. It happened only once a year. As long as I could think back, I remembered his saying that he had not wanted me. He had wanted a boy, the pig woman had cheated him. Perhaps if I should become very ill, near death, he would become kind and never beat me again or let me stand in the corner for hours, or make me walk back and forth with a glass of water in my hand. "If you spill a drop, you will get whipped!" he would threaten. The whip and the little stool were always at hand. They symbolized my shame and my tragedy. After many attempts and considerable punishment I had learned to carry the glass without spilling the water. The process used to unnerve me and make me ill for hours after.
My father was handsome, dashing, and full of vitality. I loved him even while I was afraid of him. I wanted him to love me, but I never knew how to reach his heart. His hardness served only to make me more contrary. Why was he so hard, I was wondering, as I looked out of the bay window, lost in recollections.
Suddenly I felt a terrific pain in my head, as if I had been struck with an iron bar. It was Father's fist that had smashed the round comb I wore to hold my unruly hair. He pounded me and pulled me about, raging: "You are my disgrace! You will always be so! You can't be my child; you don't look like me or like your mother; you don't act like us!"
Sister Helena wrestled with him for my life. She tried to tear me away from his grip, and the blows intended for me fell upon her. At last Father became tired, grew dizzy, and fell headlong to the floor. Helena shouted to Mother that Father had fainted. She hurried me along to her room and locked the door.
All my love and longing for my father were turned to hatred. After that I avoided him and never talked to him, unless in answer. I did what I was told mechanically; the gulf between us widened with the years. My home had become a prison. Every time I tried to escape, I was caught and put back in the chains forged for me by Father. From St. Petersburg to America, from Rochester to my marriage, there were repeated attempts to escape. The last and final one was before I left Rochester for New York.
Mother had not been feeling well and I went over to put her house in order. I was on the floor scrubbing while Father was nagging me for having married Kershner, for having left him, and again for returning to him. "You are a loose character," he kept on saying; "you have always disgraced yourself in the family." He talked, while I continued scrubbing.
Then something snapped within me; my lone and woeful childhood, my tormented adolescence, my joyless youth --- I flung them all into Father's face. He stood aghast as I denounced him, emphasizing every charge by beating my scrubbing-brush on the floor. Every cruel incident of my life stood out in my arraignment. Our large barn of a home, Father's angry voice resounding through it, his ill-treatment of the servants, his iron grip on my mother --- everything that had haunted my days and terrorized my nights I now recalled in my bitterness. I told him that if I had not become the harlot he repeatedly called me, it was not his fault. I had been on the verge even of going on the street more than once. It was Helena's love and devotion that had saved me.
My words rushed on like a torrent, the brush pounding the floor with all the hatred and scorn I felt for my father. The terrible scene ended with my hysterical screams. My brothers carried me up and put me to bed. The next morning I left the house. I did not see Father again before I went to New York.
I had learned since then that my tragic childhood had been no exception, that there were thousands of children born unwanted, marred and maimed by poverty and still more by ignorant misunderstanding. No child of mine should ever be added to those unfortunate victims.
There was also another reason: my growing absorption in my new found ideal. I had determined to serve it completely. To fulfil that mission I must remain unhampered and untied. Years of pain and of suppressed longing for a child --- what were they compared with the price many martyrs had already paid? I, too, would pay the price, I would endure the suffering, I would find an outlet for my mother-need in the love of all children. The operation did not take place.
Several weeks' rest and the loving care of my friends --- of Sasha, who had returned to the house, the Minkin sisters, Most, who called often and sent flowers, and, above all, the artist boy - gave me back to health. I rose from my sick-bed renewed in faith in my own strength. Like Sasha I now felt that I, too, could overcome every difliculty and face every test for my ideal. Had I not overcome the strongest and most primitive craving of a woman --- the desire for a child?
During those weeks Fedya and I became lovers. It had grown clear to me that my feelings for Fedya had no bearing on my love for Sasha. Each called out different emotions in my being, took me into different worlds. They created no conflict, they only brought fulfilment.
I told Sasha about my love for Fedya. His response was bigger and more beautiful than I bad expected. "I believe in your freedom to love," he said. He was aware of his possessive tendencies and hated them like everything else he had got from his bourgeois background. Perhaps if Fedya were not his friend, he might be jealous; he knew he had a large streak of jealousy in his make-up. But not only was Fedya his friend, he was his comrade in battle; and I was more to him than merely a woman. His love for me was intense, but the revolutionist and the fighter meant more to him.
When our artist friend came home that day, the boys embraced. Late into the night we talked of our plans for further activities. When we separated, we had made a pact --- to dedicate ourselves to the Cause in some supreme deed, to die together if necessary, or to continue to live and work for the ideal for which one of us might have to give his life.
The days and weeks that followed were illumined by the glorious new light in us. We became more patient with each other, more understanding.
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