Living My Life
by Emma Goldman
New York: Alfred A Knopf Inc., 1931.
I had worked in factories before, in St. Petersburg. In the winter of 1882, when my Mother, my two little brothers, and I came from Königsberg to join Father in the Russian capital, we found that he had lost his position. He had been manager of his cousin's dry goods store; but, shortly before our arrival, the business failed. The loss of his job was a tragedy to our family, as Father had not managed to save anything. The only bread-winner left was Helena. Mother was forced to turn to her brothers for a loan. The three hundred roubles they advanced were invested in a grocery store. The business yielded little at first, and is became necessary for me to find employment.
Knitted shawls were then much in vogue, and a neighbor told my mother where I might find work to do at home. By keeping at the task many hours a day, sometimes late into the night, I contrived to earn twelve roubles a month.
The shawls I knitted for a livelihood were by no means masterpieces, but somehow they passed. I hated to work, and my eyes gave way under the strain of constant application. Father's cousin who had failed in the dry-goods business now owned a glove factory. He offered to teach me the trade and give me work.
The factory was far from our place. One had to get up a five in the morning to be at work at seven. The rooms were stuffy, unventilated, and dark. Oil lamps gave the light; the sun never penetrated the work room.
There were six hundred of us, of all ages, working on costly and beautiful gloves day in, day out, for very small pay. But we were allowed sufficient time for our noon meal and twice a day for tea. We could talk an sing while at work; we were not driven or harassed. That was in St. Petersburg, in 1882,
Now I was in America, in the Flower City of the State of New York, in a model factory, as I was told. Certainly, Garson's clothingworks were a vast improvement on the glove factory on the Vassilevsky Ostrov. The rooms were large, bright, and airy. One had elbowspace. There were none of those ill-smelling odours that used to nauseate me in our cousin's shop. Yet the work here was harder, and the day, with only half an hour for lunch, seemed endless. The iron discipline forbade free movement (one could not even go to the toilet without permission), and the constant surveillance of the foreman weighed like stone on my heart. The end of each day found me sapped, with just enough energy to drag myself to my sister's home and crawl into bed. This continued with deadly monotony week after week.
The amazing thing to me was that no one else in the factory seemed to be so affected as I, no one but my neighbour, frail little Tanya. She was delicate and pale, frequently complained of headaches, and often broke into tears when the task of handling heavy ulsters proved too much for her. One morning, as I looked up from my work, I discovered her all huddled in a heap. She had fallen in a faint. I called to the foreman to help me carry her to the dressing-room, but the deafening noise of the machines drowned my voice. Several girls near by heard me and began to shout. They ceased working and rushed over to Tanya. The sudden stopping of the machines attracted the foreman's attention and he came over to us. Without even asking the reason for the commotion, he shouted: "Back to your machines! What do you mean stopping work now? Do you want to be fired? Get back at once!" When he spied the crumpled body of Tanya, he yelled: "What the hell is the matter with her?" "She has fainted," I replied, trying hard to control my voice. "Fainted, nothing," he sneered, "she's only shamming."
"You are a liar and a brute!" I cried, no longer able to keep back my indignation.
I bent over Tanya, loosened her waist, and squeezed the juice of an orange I had in my lunch basket into her half-opened mouth. Her face was white, a cold sweat on her forehead. She looked so ill that even the foreman realized she had not been shamming. He excused her for the day. "I will go with Tanya," I said; "you can deduct from my pay for the time." "You can go to hell, you wildcat!" he flung after me.
We went to a coffee place. I myself felt empty and faint, but all we had between us was seventy-five cents. We decided to spend forty on food, and use the rest for a street-car ride to the park. There, in the fresh air, amid the flowers and trees, we forgot our dreaded tasks. The day that had begun in trouble ended restfully and in peace.
The next morning the enervating routine started all over again, continuing for weeks and months, broken only by the new arrival in our family, a baby girl. The child became the one interest in my dull existence. Often, when the atmosphere in Garson's factory threatened to overcome me, the thought of the lovely mite at home revived my spirit. The evenings were no longer dreary and meaningless. But, while little Stella brought joy into our household, she added to the material anxiety of my sister and my brother-in-law.
Lena never by word or deed made me feel that the dollar and fifty cents I was giving her for my board (the car fare amounted to sixty cents a week, the remaining forty cents being my pin-money) did not cover my keep. But I had overheard my brother-in-law grumbling over the growing expenses of the house. I felt he was right. I did not want my sister worried, she was nursing her child. I decided to apply for a rise. I knew it was no use talking to the foreman and therefore I asked to see Mr. Garson.
I was ushered into a luxurious office. American Beauties were on the table. Often I had admired them in the flower shops, and once, unable to withstand the temptation, I had gone in to ask the price. They were one dollar and a half apiece --- more than half of my week's earnings. The lovely vase in Mr. Garson's office held a great many of them.
I was not asked to sit down. For a moment I forgot my mission. The beautiful room, the roses, the aroma of the bluish smoke from Mr. Garson's cigar, fascinated me. I was recalled to reality by my employer's question: "Well, what can I do for you? "
I had come to ask for a rise, I told him. The two dollars and a half I was getting did not pay my board, let alone anything else, such as an occasional book or a theater ticket for twenty-five cents. Mr. Garson replied that for a factory girl I had rather extravagant tastes, that all his "hands" were well satisfied, that they seemed to be getting along all right --- that I, too, would have to manage or find work elsewhere. "If I raise your wages, I'll have to raise the others' as well and I can't afford that," he said. I decided to leave Garson's employ.
A few days later I secured a job at Rubinstein's factory at four dollars a week. It was a small shop, not far from where I lived. The house stood in a garden, and only a dozen men and women were employed in the place. The Garson discipline and drive were missing.
Next to my machine worked an attractive young man whose name was Jacob Kershner. He lived near Lena's home, and we would often walk from work together. Before long he began calling for me in the morning. We used to converse in Russian, my English still being very halting. His Russian was like music to me; it was the first real Russian, outside of Helena's, that I had had an opportunity to hear in Rochester since my arrival.
Kershner had come to America in 1881 from Odessa, where he had finished the Gymnasium Having no trade, he became an " operator" on cloaks. He used to spend most of his leisure, he told me, reading or going to dances. He had no friends, because he found his coworkers in Rochester interested only in money-making, their ideal being to start a shop of their own. He had heard of our arrival, Helena's and mine --- had even seen me on the street several times --- but he did not know how to get acquainted. Now he would no longer feel lonely, he said brightly; we could visit places together and he would lend me his books to read. My own loneliness no longer was so poignant.
I told my sisters of my new acquaintance, and Lena asked me to invite him the next Sunday. When Kershner came, she was favourably impressed; but Helena took a violent dislike to him from the first. She said nothing about it for a long time, but I could sense it.
One day Kershner invited me to a dance. It was my first since I came to America. The very anticipation was exciting, bringing back memories of my first ball in St. Petersburg.
I was fifteen then. Helena had been invited to the fashionable German Club by her employer, who gave her two tickets, so she could bring me with her. Some time previously my sister had presented me with a piece of lovely blue velvet for my first long dress; but before it could be made up, our peasant servant walked off with the material. My grief over its loss made me quite ill for several days. If only I had a dress, I thought, Father might consent to my attending the ball. "I'll get you material for a dress," Helena consoled me, "but I'm afraid Father will refuse." "Then I will defy him!" I declared.
She bought another piece of blue stuff, not so beautiful as my velvet, but I no longer minded. I was too happy over the prospect of my first ball, of the bliss of dancing in public. Somehow Helena succeeded in getting Father's consent, but at the last moment he changed his mind. I had been guilty of some infraction during the day, and he categorically declared that I would have to stay home. Thereupon Helena said she also would not go. But I was determined to defy my father, no matter what the consequences.
With bated breath I waited for my parents to retire for the night. Then I dressed and woke Helena, I told her she must come with me or I would run away from home. "We can be back before Father wakes up," I urged. Dear Helena --- she was always so timid! She had infinite capacity for suffering, for endurance, but she could not fight. On this occasion she was carried away by my desperate decision. She dressed and we quietly slipped out of the house.
At the German Club everything was bright and gay. We found Helena's employer, whose name was Kadison, and some of his young friends. I was asked for every dance, and I danced in frantic excitement and abandon. It was getting late and many people were already leaving when Kadison invited me for another dance. Helena insisted that I was too exhausted, but I would not have it so. "I will dance!" I declared; "I will dance myself to death!" My flesh felt hot, my heart beat violently as my cavalier swung me round the ball-room, holding me tightly. To dance to death --- what more glorious end!
It was towards five in the morning when we arrived home. Our people were still asleep. I awoke late in the day, pretending a sick headache, and secretly I gloried in my triumph of having outwitted our old man.
The memory of that experience still vivid in my mind, I accompanied Jacob Kershner to the party, full of anticipation. My disappointment was bitter: there were no beautiful ball-room, no lovely women, no dashing young men, no gaiety. The music was shrill, the dancers clumsy. Jacob danced not badly, but he lacked spirit and fire. "Four years at the machine have taken the strength out of me," he said; "I get tired so easily."
I had known Jacob Kershner about four months when he asked me to marry him. I admitted I liked him, but I did not want to marry so young. We still knew so little of each other. He said he'd wait as long as I pleased, but there was already a great deal of talk about our being together so much. "Why should we not get engaged?" he pleaded. Finally I consented. Helena's antagonism to Jacob had become almost an obsession; she fairly hated him. But I was lonely --- I needed companionship. Ultimately I won over my sister. Her great love for me could never refuse me anything or stand out against my wishes.
The late fall of 1886 brought the rest of our family to Rochester --- Father, Mother, my brothers, Herman and Yegor. Conditions in St. Petersburg had become intolerable for the Jews, and the grocery business did not yield enough for the ever-growing bribery Father had to practice in order to be allowed to exist. America became the only solution.
Together with Helena I had prepared a home for our parents, and on their arrival we went to live with them. Our earnings soon proved inadequate to meet the household expenses. Jacob Kershner offered to board with us, which would be of some help, and before long he moved in.
The house was small, consisting of a living-room, a kitchen, and two bedrooms. One of them was used by my parents, the other by Helena, myself, and our little brother. Kershner and Herman slept in the living-room. The close proximity of Jacob and the lack of privacy kept me in constant irritation. I suffered from sleepless nights, waking dreams and great fatigue at work. Life was becoming unbearable, and Jacob stressed the need of a home of our own.
On nearer acquaintance I had grown to understand that we were too different. His interest in books, which had first attracted me to him, had waned. He bad fallen into the ways of his shopmates, playing cards and attending dull dances. I, on the contrary, was filled with striving and aspirations. In spirit I was still in Russia, in my beloved St. Petersburg, living in the world of the books I had read, the operas I had heard, the circle of the students I had known. I hated Rochester even more than before. But Kershner was the only human being I had met since my arrival. He filled a void in my life, and I was strongly attracted to him. In February 1887 we were married in Rochester by a rabbi, according to Jewish rites, which I were then considered sufficient by the law of the country.
My feverish excitement of that day, my suspense and ardent anticipation gave way at night to a feeling of utter bewilderment. Jacob lay trembling near me; he was impotent.
The first erotic sensations I remember had come to me when I was about six. My parents lived in Popelan then, where we children had no home in any real sense. Father kept an inn, which was constantly filled with peasants drunk and quarreling, and government officials. Mother was busy superintending the servants in our large, chaotic house. My sisters, Lena and Helena, fourteen and twelve, were burdened with work. I was left to myself most of the day. Among the stable help there was a young peasant, Petrushka, who served as shepherd, looking after our cows and sheep. Often he would take me with him to the meadows, and I would listen to the sweet tones of his flute. In the evening he would carry me back home on his shoulders, I sitting astride. He would play horse --- run as fast as his legs could carry him, then suddenly throw me up in the air, catch me in his arms, and press me to him. It used to give me a peculiar sensation, fill me with exultation, followed by blissful release.
I became inseparable from Petrushka. I grew so fond of him that I began stealing cake and fruit from Mother's pantry for him. To be with Petrushka out in the fields, to listen to his music, to ride on his shoulders, became the obsession of my waking and sleeping hours. One day Father had an altercation with Petrushka, and the boy was sent away. The loss of him was one of the greatest tragedies of in child-life. For weeks afterwards I kept on dreaming of Petrushka, the meadows, the music, and reliving the joy and ecstasy of our play. One morning I felt myself torn out of sleep. Mother was bending over me, tightly holding my right hand. In an angry voice I she cried: "If ever I find your hand again like that, I'll whip you, you naughty child!"
The approach of puberty gave me my first consciousness of the effect of men on me. I was eleven then. Early one summer day I woke up in great agony. My head, spine, and legs ached as if they were being pulled asunder. I called for Mother. She drew back my bedcovers, and suddenly I felt a stinging pain in my face. She had struck me. I let out a shriek, fastening on Mother terrified eyes. "This is necessary for a girl," she said, "when she becomes a woman, as a protection against disgrace." She tried to take me in her arms, but I pushed her back. I was writhing in pain and I was too outraged for her to touch me. "I am going to die," I howled, "I want the Feldscher (assistant doctor)." The Feldscher was sent for. He was a young man, a new-comer in our village. He examined me and gave me something to put me to sleep. Thenceforth my dreams were of the Feldscher.
When I was fifteen, I was employed in a corset factory in the Hermitage Arcade in St. Petersburg. After working hours, on leaving the shop together with the other girls, we would be waylaid by young Russian officers and civilians. Most of the girls had their sweethearts; only a Jewish girl chum of mine and I refused to be taken to the konditorskaya (pastry shop) or to the park.
Next to the Hermitage was a hotel we had to pass. One of the clerks, a handsome fellow of about twenty, singled me out for his attentions. At first I scorned him, but gradually he began to exert a fascination on me. His perseverance slowly undermined my pride and I accepted his courtship. We used to meet in some quiet spot or in an out-of-the-way pastry shop. I had to invent all sorts of stories to explain to my father why I returned late from work or stayed out after nine o'clock. One day he spied me in the Summer Garden in the company of other girls and some boy students. When I returned home, he threw me violently against the shelves in our grocery store, which sent the jars of Mother's wonderful varenya flying to the floor. He pounded me with his fists, shouting that he would not tolerate a loose daughter. The experience made my home more unbearable, the need of escape more compelling.
For several months my admirer and I met clandestinely. One day he asked me whether I should not like to go through the hotel to see the luxurious rooms. I had never been in a hotel before --- the joy and gaiety I fancied behind the gorgeous windows used to fascinate me as I would pass the place on my way from work.
The boy led me through a side entrance, along a thickly carpeted corridor, into a large room. It was brightly illumined and beautifully furnished. A table near the sofa held flowers and a tea-tray. We sat down. The young man poured out a golden-coloured liquid and asked me to clink glasses to our friendship. I put the wine to my lips. Suddenly I found myself in his arms, my waist torn open - his passionate kisses covered my face, neck, and breasts. Not until after the violent contact of our bodies and the excruciating pain he caused me did I come to my senses. I screamed, savagely beating against the man's chest with my fists. Suddenly I heard Helena's voice in the hall. "She must be here - she must be here!" I became speechless. The man, too, was terrorized. His grip relaxed, and we listened in breathless silence. After what seemed to me hours, Helena's voice receded. The man got up. I rose mechanically, mechanically buttoned my waist and brushed back my hair.
Strange, I felt no shame - only a great shock at the discovery that the contact between man and woman could be so brutal and so painful, I walked out in a daze, bruised in every nerve.
When I reached home I found Helena fearfully wrought up. She had been uneasy about me, aware of my meeting with the boy. She had made it her business to find out where he worked, and when I failed to return, she had gone to the hotel in search of me. The shame I did not feel in the arms of the man now overwhelmed me. I could not muster up courage to tell Helena of my experience.
After that I always felt between two fires in the presence of men. Their lure remained strong, but it was always mingled with violent revulsion. I could not bear to have them touch me.
These pictures passed through my mind vividly as I lay alongside my husband on our wedding night. He had fallen fast asleep.
The weeks went on. There was no change. I urged Jacob to consult a doctor. At first he refused, pleading diffidence, but finally he went. He was told it would take considerable time to "build up his manhood." My own passion had subsided. The material anxiety of making ends meet excluded everything else. I had stopped work: it was considered disgraceful for a married woman to go to the shop. Jacob was earning fifteen dollars a week. He had developed a passion for cards, which swallowed up a considerable part of our income. He grew jealous, suspecting everyone. Life became insupportable. I was saved from utter despair by my interest in the Haymarket events.
After the death of the Chicago anarchists I insisted on a separation from Kershner. He fought long against it, but finally consented to a divorce. It was given to us by the same rabbi who had performed our marriage ceremony. Then I left for New Haven, Connecticut, to work in a corset-factory.
During my efforts to free myself from Kershner the only one who stood by me was my sister Helena. She had been strenuously opposed to the marriage in the first place, but now she offered not a single reproach. On the contrary, she gave me help and comfort. She pleaded with my parents and with Lena in behalf of my decision to get a divorce. As always, her devotion knew no bounds.
In New Haven I met a group of young Russians, students mainly, now working at various trades. Most of them were socialists and anarchists. They often organized meetings, generally inviting speakers from New York, one of whom was A. Solotaroff. Life was interesting and colourful, but gradually the strain of the work became too much for my depleted vitality. Finally I had to return to Rochester.
I went to Helena. She lived with her husband and child over their little printing shop, which also served as an office for their steamship agency. But both occupations did not bring in enough to keep them from dire poverty. Helena had married Jacob Hochstein, a man ten years her senior. He was a great Hebrew scholar, an authority on the English and Russian classics, and a very rare personality. His integrity and independent character made him a poor competitor in the sordid business life. When anyone brought him a printing order worth two dollars, Jacob Hochstein devoted as much time to it as if he were getting fifty. If a customer showed a tendency to bargain over prices, he would send him away. He could not bear the implication that he might overcharge. His income was insufficient for the needs of the family, and the one to worry and fret most about it was my poor Helena. She was pregnant with her second child and yet had to drudge from morning till night to make ends meet, with never a word of complaint. But, then, she had been that way all her life, suffering silently, always resigned.
Helena's marriage had not sprung from a passionate love. It was the union of two mature people who longed for comradeship, for a quiet life. Whatever there had been of passion in my sister had burned out when she was twenty-four. At the age of sixteen, while we were living in Popelan, she had fallen in love with a young Lithuanian, a beautiful soul. But he was a goi (gentile) and Helena knew that marriage between them was impossible. After a great struggle and many tears Helena broke off the affair with young Sasha. Years later, while on our way to America, we stopped in Kovno, our native town. Helena had arranged for Susha to meet her there. She could not bear to go away so far without saying good-bye to him. They met and parted as good friends --- the fire of their youth was in ashes.
On my return from New Haven Helena received me, as always, with tenderness and with the assurance that her home was also mine. It was good to be near my darling again, with little Stella and my young brother Yegor. But it did not take me long to discover the pinched condition in Helena's home. I went back to the shop.
Living in the Jewish district, it was impossible to avoid those one did not wish to see. I ran into Kershner almost immediately after my arrival. Day after day he would seek me out. He began to plead with me to go back to him --- all would be different. One day he threatened suicide --- actually pulled out a bottle of poison. Insistently he pressed me for a final answer.
I was not na&iUML;ve enough to think that a renewed life with Kershner would prove more satisfactory or lasting than at first. Besides, I had definitely decided to go to New York, to equip myself for the work I had vowed to take up after the death of my Chicago comrades. But Kershner's threat frightened me: I could not be responsible for his death. I remarried him. My parents rejoiced and so did Lena and her husband, but Helena was sick with grief.
Without Kershner's knowledge I took up a course in dressmaking, in order to have a trade that would free me from the shop. During three long months I wrestled with my husband to let me go my way. I tried to make him see the futility of living a patched life, but he remained obdurate. Late one night, after bitter recriminations, I left Jacob Kershner and my home, this time definitely.
I was immediately ostracized by the whole Jewish population of Rochester. I could not pass on the street without being held up to scorn. My parents forbade me their house, and again it was only Helena who stood by me. Out of her meagre income she even paid my fare to New York.
So I left Rochester, where I had known so much pain, hard work, and loneliness, but the joy of my departure was marred by separation from Helena, from Stella, and the little brother I loved so well.
The break of the new day in the Minkin flat still found me awake. The door upon the old had now closed for ever. The new was calling, and I eagerly stretched out my hands towards it. I fell into a deep, peaceful sleep.
I was awakened by Anna Minkin's voice announcing the arrival of Alexander Berkman. It was late afternoon.
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