Andrea Dworkin's tell-all this is not. That's hardly surprising, given that Dworkin is one of the most maligned women in the world, and any details she shares about her life are likely to be met with suspicion at best. What is disappointing is that the book is presented as a memoir and is not. It is a series of episodic, highly selective anecdotes, presented in roughly chronological order but confusing as to subjective and objective significance. Somewhere in the puzzle there is a truly heartbreaking story--that of a brilliant, courageous, talented woman set on wrong turns early and with malice aforethought by a society that could only recognize intelligence in a woman as perversity and perversity as sexual. Even growing up in Camden, New Jersey, Dworkin's gifts were recognized by her teachers, but women teachers resented her and male teachers tried to seduce her. Dworkin's refusal to conform closed the usual paths of resistance to seduction: female chastity and lack of adventurousness. She went in the opposite extreme, experimenting sexually at an early age, valuing her independence but remaining essentially gullible, loving books and the male model of the social outcast, while at the same time picking up few practical skills. It never was spelled out to her that male bohemians survived because on the one hand, they didn't have to worry about rape, number two, no one would expect them to sell their bodies, and number three, they often knew how to use others to their advantage. By the time Dworkin began to figure it out, she had been through prostitution, several rapes, an abusive marriage, and sexual degradation by doctors in the Women's House of Detention in New York, which her testimony (as an antiwar prisoner) helped to bring down. She also had been through serious drug use and the political self-indulgence of much of the sixties, considering all authority, anywhere, as bad, thus refusing a young woman the authority and the help from authority that would allow her to take charge of her life.
Feminism did, and with a lot of help from her friends, Dworkin not only survived but transcended her background to become an original and tough-minded feminist writer. This is the most inspiring part of her story and reflects most positively upon radical feminism--now a smear word, but originally a way for women who had been left-wing radicals to distance themselves from the misogynism of the left while maintaining a progressive vision. Unfortunately, radical feminism quickly ran up against the same walls as sixties radicalism, fracturing into the exploration of consciousness and lifestyles on the one hand and on the other, a movement against sexual violence that accomplished certain positive goals while remaining self-divided politically. It was the latter which threw Andrea Dworkin into prominence, her imaginative verbal fury and personal anguish an unforgettable diversion from the difficult legal and social details of institutionalizing anti-rape politics, but too often a diversion to help in translating pain into practice. Reading between the lines, it is easy to see how her own best qualities played a role in making Dworkin the feminist equivalent of the "cool teacher": the magnetic, sympathetic personality of huge learning whose attractive extremism and lack of common sense threatens to overpower the young as they start living their own lives. Feminism is a young movement; feminists are by definition in need of mentors. Reading "Heartbreak," the overwhelming lack in Dworkin does not come across as being one of courage, social conscience, or integrity, but of even the most basic mentoring skills, however skinlessly keen her attention to others: it's an attention that is focused on her own sensitivity, her own attentiveness, her own compassion. Others are her mentors--Judith Malina, Grace Paley, Muriel Rukeyser, Huey Newton, and would-be Ginsberg and Goodman--but Dworkin overwhelms rather than guiding. Her ideals may be on the side of the angels; her self-absorption, however, verges on megalomania.
One suspects this is what happens to a brilliant person encouraged to be a mediocrity, and Dworkin's most stunning case in this book is not against pornography or pedophilia (her charge against most male mentors) or even Bill Clinton: it's against high school. The book is worth reading and buying for that. It's heartbreaking, but not quite as Andrea Dworkin intended: it's heartbreaking for the portrait of a near-genius who knows the truth about herself, grieves for it every day, and yet cannot quite escape being a caricature.