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A Free Woman

By Various Authors

When the radical feminist and new journalist Ellen Willis died last fall, a black rock critic mourned her as “the Mother of us all.” Another well-known black writer – and notorious macho man – referred to Ellen as “God” when she was editing his pieces at the Village Voice. Ellen may have come to be identified with a distinctive bohemian nexus in the Village, but her work worked on people outside the Downtown milieu. Someone once compared Ellen’s 60’s talks pushing second wave feminism to the Howling Wolf tour of the UK that inspired a generation of British rockers.

Her tie to First of the Month was one more sign of her reach and her readiness to stimulate what she called the "cultural conversation." Ellen, along with her domestic partner Stanley Aronowitz, put up half the money for our first issue, though she was ambivalent about our crew’s less than reverent response to the cultural politics of many of her former colleagues at the Village Voice. Having said her own goodbye to all that in the early 90s, she didn’t want outside readers to conflate her own way of thinking through recent history with anyone else’s.

Still, she knew there were things we carried in common. When we were “negotiating” about the first First, she arranged for Armond White to appear on a panel at NYU where she taught journalism. At one point, he quoted a passage from Pauline Kael’s “Trash, Art and the Movies” without identifying the source and asked if anyone in the room could tell where it came from. Ellen and I both slowly raised our hands and then put them back down quickly when we realized no-one else had raised theirs.

Charles O’Brien was responsible for another, felt connection later when he came up with the title for Ellen’s sharp First critique of the Jewish Museum’s 2002 “Mirroring Evil” exhibit, in which she rejected fashionable arty equations between American culture and fascism:

The idea that Nazism is mirrored in American consumerism comes across as a form of grandiosity, the desire of middle-class artists and critics to see themselves as the fulcrum of history. For in truth, the mirror images of the Nazis, in our time, are not Calvin Klein and Prada but Bosnian Serbs and Islamic fundamentalists…

O’Brien’s title, “In My Lonely Room,” came from a Motown track by Martha and the Vandellas and Ellen not only recalled the song, but realized the reference to it was a “nice” fit for her argument.

Ellen appreciated O’Brien’s own polemics. She rejected some of his positions, but the idea of freedom – “the only truly radical idea,” as Ellen once put it – was irresistible to both of them.

Last spring Ellen emailed to say pieces by O’Brien (and Fredric Smoler) on the Danish Cartoon Controversy posted on this site were “good.” (That was high praise from Ellen whose mode of approbation was the opposite of American idolaters.) Struck by how much those pieces “echoed themes” in what she’d written at the time of the Rushdie affair, she wondered if we “might be interested in reprinting the editorial I wrote in the Voice as a historical affirmation of the bad road we are going down…” The piece of the past that Ellen thought belonged in First leads off the following tribute to her. (It was originally titled “The West Betrays Its Principles.”) B.D.

Before the War

This piece first appeared in 1989 in the Village Voice.

By Ellen Willis

Make no mistake: Ayatollah Khomeini’s call for Salman Rushdie’s execution is not simply a piece of lunatic demagogy directed at an individual, but a serious act of political intimidation with far-reaching consequences. The Iranian head of state has declared war – quite literally – on Western secular, democratic institutions. He has rallied his international troops in his most daring bid yet to extend the power of Islamic theocracy beyond his own country, even beyond the Moslem world, by force. Do the people and the governments supposedly committed to democratic values have the will to fight back?

Already Khomeini has won a few battles. Rushdie can hardly be blamed for going into hiding, and perhaps it’s too much to expect of his publishers that they go on with his book tour as a protest, with a video or audio tape of Rushdie taking his place. But Vikings’ craven statement that they never intended to offend anyone by publishing Rushdie’s book and “very much regret the distress the book has caused” is inexcusable. So is the action of the Waldenbooks, the country’s largest books chain in taking Satanic Verses off the shelves. (As the company’s executive vice-president, Bonnie Predd, sententiously put it: “We’ve fought long and hard against censorship. But when it comes to the safety of our employees, one sometimes has to compromise.” (How about simply offering any nervous employee a few days off.?) In France, Presses de la Cite, Rushdie’s publisher, has ‘postponed’ publication of the French edition (you remember France, home of Voltaire, but more recently the drug company that tried to scuttle the abortifacient RU 486 under pressure from anti-abortion activists). Nor will the West German house Keipenheuer and Witsch publish Rushdie’s book as scheduled.

There is no indication that the world’s governments are taking Khomeini’s move as seriously as it deserves. Britain has made the strongest statement, which nonetheless falls short of declaring that officially putting a price on the head of a British author exercising the right to free speech in his own country is an act of war against Britain and will be viewed as such. The United States has confined itself to a routine condemnation of terrorism. Canada gets the prize for moral oafishness. Revenue Canada, a government customs and taxation agency, has temporarily banned further imports of the Rushdie book, pending an investigation of the possibility that it contains “hate literature” (the ban was announced the first day of Canada’s National Freedom To Read Week). Will Britain, the U.S., or anyone else move to bring this issue before the United Nations? If they do, is there any chance the UN will vote for meaningful sanctions against Iran? And if not, will those Western nations that call themselves democracies get together to impose sanctions on their own, The last two questions are, I’m afraid, rhetorical.

The attack on Rushdie and the anemic response to it are not occurring in a vacuum. Democratic secularism is increasingly vulnerable to a religious fundamentalism that in all its forms – Christian, and Jewish as well as Islamic – is increasingly feeling its power. And Western governments, far from resisting anti-democratic absolutism, have been abetting it. The Thatcher government has enthusiastically pursued its own censorship of books and other media. The U.S. has, of course, been in bed with fundamentalist Christianity since the election of Jimmy Carter. The Reagan administration never got too exercised about violent attacks on abortion clinics, refusing to include them in its antiterrorist rhetoric, the political climate surrounding abortion has become so intimidating that no American drug company has been willing to test RU 486, must less market it. Our government also supports, on the grounds of the right to freedom and self-determination, the fundamentalist guerrillas in Afghanistan, who – if, as now seems likely, they end up in power – may make Khomeini look mellow. Is there anything left of the West’s loudly proclaimed commitment to freedom that goes beyond such ironies? More and more that question, too, begins to seem rhetorical.


By Ann Snitow

On February 17, 2005, Ellen Willis gave a talk at Take Back the Future, a group that meets on the third Thursday of each month for old New Leftists and feminists to talk about What to Do Now. The abortion situation was heating up; it really looked bad for one of feminism's most concrete victories, Roe v. Wade. And no one seemed to care; there was a war on.

In this situation one would expect Ellen Willis, one of the great, original voices, one of the founders of the modern Women's Liberation Movement, to say what she had always said: that abortion was key to our struggle, that without abortion there is no freedom and sexual pleasure is threatened, that freedom and pleasure are what we should want and what politics should be about. In 1977, when the Hyde Amendment cut off funding for abortion, hadn't we founded No More Nice Girls to say just that? Rather than trudge around in a circle downhearted, we made our demonstrations theatrical and flamboyant, facing down signs on the other side that said "Abortion is Murder" with our own message: "Sex for Fun."

What Ellen actually said that evening was that, in spite of all our efforts to keep the subject sexy and edgy, abortion wasn't an exciting or useful starting point for radicals anymore. Liberal feminists had taken it over and disassociated abortion from sexual freedom, apologizing for this awful need women sometimes have. At the same time, left-wing feminists had buried abortion inside "reproductive rights" campaigns that were as much about health and having children as about that stigmatized, nasty thing, abortion. Besides, Ellen said, we're on the defensive now, trying to protect a right, which can never be like fighting for something new that you urgently want. Backlash, she said, has mired feminism in ambivalence. How can you raise issues of sexual freedom through feminism in this compromised, self-deprecating condition?

Ever the critic of everything, she turned on herself: I usually say the left refused to take the culture wars seriously and that this is a serious mistake. But I, too, want us to turn our attention from this particular piece of the cultural wars, abortion. The New Right has cornered the market on passion about this one; let's do something else, something new to raise the issue of sexual freedom. The passion we can claim at this moment is internationalism. People are not used to the idea that women's rights are key to international affairs, but sexual repression is a basic element in religious totalitarianism. The feminist demand for sexual freedom could enter here. Here is a place for a feminist politics where we can talk about the fear of sexual freedom as a force in current world affairs.

Some in the room were stunned. Abandon abortion at home for international culture wars about sex? Yes, yes. Because Ellen was always moving beyond what we were currently saying and beyond herself. She was unpredictable because she was always seeking the burning tip, the place where political life is alive with desire, and that place is always changing. She had proposed at a left conference that fear of sex was a central motive for the bombing of the Twin Towers, and some had tittered. Surely, the great Ellen Willis had gone over the edge--or was she joking? She was always disappointed when the left refused to take psychology, and particularly sexuality, seriously. She was always seeking to keep radical ideas about freedom and pleasure alive and moving in the world.

For me, and for so many others, Ellen's intellectual leadership has been formative, central, enduring. As a political comrade, she was cranky and skeptical, and I did my political work while woven into a constant conversation--argument with her for thirty years. She threw light on absolutely everything. When she edited our writing, she pulled from us a kind of clarity about what we wanted to say and do that we now have to hope will last us our lifetimes--lifetimes we expected to lead in her luminous company.

My Girl

By Donna Gaines

I remember the first time I saw her byline--the policeman's daughter from Queens didn't hide her sex as "E. Willis" or stick to "women's issues." There she was, Ellen Willis, feminist, rocker, smart, cool and determined. In New Journalism, writers like Ellen Willis, Tom Wolfe and gonzo Hunter Thompson dove right in, they read the social world like a Zap comic, like the Ramones. Willis wrote about the family, Lou Reed, Janis Joplin, Israel, Elvis, about everything. The first feminist critic, she was an avowed New Journalist who fought for the rights of the first-person narrative. After leaving the Village Voice, she became a professor in the journalism department of New York University and the head of its Center for Cultural Reporting and Criticism.

I remember the first time I met her: Willis opened the door to the Park Slope Apartment she shared with her longtime partner, distinguished sociologist Stanley Aronowitz, their daughter Nona and Icy the cat. She appeared like a vision, a pre-Raphaelite goddess. Her long blond curls framed a serene, translucent, delicate face. Reading her work, I had always imagined her as someone small, intense, dark and nervous, chain-smoking. But she was sensual, electric, and very funny. .After beating the sociologese out of me, Ellen assigned me to write about Long Island's suburban subculture and later sent me on assignment to Bergenfield. Both of my books, and everything I know about writing were born out of this editorial relationship. Even today, I can hear her screaming over my shoulder, "You're over explaining!! Just say it!!!".

A brilliant political essayist, journalist, and music critic, in the late 1960s and 1970s, Willis was the first popular music critic for the New Yorker, and also wrote for the Nation, Rolling Stone, Slate, Salon, and Dissent where she was also on the editorial board. She was the author of several books of collected essays. Willis attended Barnard College and The University of California, Berkeley.

According to her biographers, Ellen was a founding member of the radical feminist Redstockings. She broke the gender barrier as a music writer. Then, starting in 1979, Willis wrote a number of essays that were highly critical of anti-pornography feminism, criticizing it for what she saw as its sexual Puritanism and moral authoritarianism, as well as its threat to free speech. These essays were among the earliest expressions of feminist opposition to the anti-pornography movement. Her 1981 essay, "Lust Horizons: Is the Women's Movement Pro-Sex?" is the origin of the term, "pro-sex feminism". She was also a strong supporter of women's abortion rights, and in the early 1980s was a founding member of the pro-choice street theater/protest group No More Nice Girls. When and where she entered, the doors ripped off the hinges and we followed madly.

A self-described anti-authoritarian democratic socialist, she was very critical of what she viewed as social conservatism and authoritarianism on both the political right and left. In cultural politics, she was equally opposed to the idea that cultural issues are politically unimportant, as well as to strong forms of identity politics and their manifestation as political correctness. Coming from a Jewish background, she wrote a number of essays on anti-Semitism, and was particularly critical of left anti-Semitism.

Willis saw political authoritarianism and sexual repression as closely linked, an idea first advanced by psychologist Wilhelm Reich; much of Willis' writing advances a Reichian or radical Freudian analysis of such phenomena. In 2006 she was working on a book on the importance of radical psychoanalytic thought to current social and political issues. We’ve lost a great American intellectual, a personal hero, friend and warrior goddess, first battalion.

Good Times

By Tom Smucker

It’s hard for me to write about Ellen because I don’t believe in drawing inspiration from the death of a friend who died too young. What would Ellen write about the collapse of the Bush administration, or the emergence of post-Sixties politicians like Barack Obama, or iTunes, or Dinesh D’Souza’s attempts to forge a theo-con Christian-Muslim alliance. I’ll never get to read it, and that’s a tragedy.

But I suppose it’s a tragedy because there is an inspirational nugget here. The Ellen I knew survived the 1950s because the 1960s came along, and when they did, helped make them happen. She was old enough to be a smart young woman back when that was impossible, and when the politics and culture shifted, she carved out the space to allow her own existence.

I first met Ellen when she and Bob Christgau were working out the intellectual undergirdings of rock criticism and then got to watch as she named and figured out an identity she already embodied: feminist. She understood, personally, the link between patriarchy and elitist interpretations of culture, and when the moment arrived, collaborated on articulating an ideology in opposition to both. And did it one on one, in small groups, in women’s magazines, the rock press, and fancy pants intellectual journals.

So here’s the inspirational conclusion. Get through the bad times, and when and if the times are changing, get in there and push and make a difference.

Ellen did.

Sisterhood Is Powerful

By Judy Oppenheimer

This piece is adapted from the talk Ms. Oppenheimer gave at Ellen Willis’ funeral.

Ellen and I had a connection that began before we were born. Our mothers were sisters, and very close; we were their first pregnancies, practically simultaneous. They wrote letters to each other constantly before and after giving birth, which they did a month apart. Our earliest pictures show us in the same crib, eyeing each other warily. Ellen was the first person I knew besides my parents, and almost the first thing I remember knowing was that she was smarter than me. That, of course, was long before I knew she was smarter than anyone. .I remember the time both of us, aged 4, were crayoning, and I managed to rip through my coloring book. "I hate these crayons," I cried. "Judy, don't be so sarcastic," she said coolly, a word I wouldn't understand for years (it would be even more years before I understood she was using the word incorrectly; being a typical 4-year-old, at that moment I really did hate those crayons). At the time, she simply floored me; I stared at her, awed.

As kids, we were together for holidays, vacations and most of the summer, which we spent in Ellenville, New York, the small Catskills town where our mothers had grown up. Because of the war, and our fathers' absences, Ellen and I made it to age 6 before we had to deal with siblings, first one, then two years later another, apiece (our mothers really were amazingly in sync). Becoming big sisters was a challenge. We handled it by first developing a deep yearning for a big sister of our own, and second, inventing one.
Her name was Margaret, our favorite name of the moment, and she was, we decided, away at camp--this, we figured, would explain her absence to anyone churlish enough to question her existence. We painstakingly composed a letter from her, which had her complaining about camp--Ellen thought that was a good touch, since we could then act annoyed at her complaints. We spent several days running around the small town of Ellenville, calling her name, informing anyone who looked at us quizzically that she was just up ahead, around the corner. For some reason this whole venture satisfied us.
The odd thing was it never occurred to either of us that there was no way we could have had a mutual older sister. Obviously, it had never occurred to us that we weren't sisters ourselves.

We shared many things, growing up. Books, for one. Almost every year we had a special book. We were 10 when we discovered Anne Frank. She affected us strongly, though not, I'm afraid, the same way she affected everyone else. What got to us was the fact that she had been on the spot at a particularly important time and place--and written it all down, earning eternal fame. We immediately started diaries of our own, even giving them names, silly as that seemed, since it had worked for her. We then set out to find adventures to record. It was slim pickings, back in 1950s surburbia, but we strove valiantly. One day we went for a walk and a dog followed us for an hour--Sandy, an amiable Irish setter. Thrilled, we ran home and rushed to our notebooks to record it.

We shared music, too. We were both there for that cataclysmic event, the birth of rock and roll. I remember us going to see Blackboard Jungle, which started and ended with Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock," later pinpointed by many as a primal moment. No one had to tell us that. We were so thrilled, so excited, we rushed outside feverishly, holding hands, the music ringing in our ears. Everything else was down the road--Elvis, Dylan, the Stones, all of it--but it was as if we knew it all in that one intoxicating moment, knew what was coming, felt it in the air.

Then there was sex, which fascinated us. We used to lie in bed when we were 12, planning our first honeymoon night. What would be best to wear, something sheer or maybe something flannel--that way, Ellen thought, you'd save the surprise for the end. In our 20s, our ways diverged. Ellen got married, at age 20, because (she later admitted) she wanted to go to California with her boyfriend, and no one went off with a boyfriend in 1960 without being married. It didn't last; she returned to New York and started forging her amazing career as a rock critic, then as a founder of the new feminist movement. I married and stayed home when the babies came, something she never, never made me feel bad about.

Still, she herself would never have children, she said. She needed too much time to read the papers on Sunday, and besides, changing diapers disgusted her and she would end up giving the kid a complex. I believed her, naturally; you always believed Ellen. Then one day, when we were standing in line at a supermarket and I was hugely pregnant and holding on to my 2-year-old, I thrust him at her, saying, "Here, hold this," so I could pay. After I finished I glanced at her. She was holding him so tenderly, with such a loving look on her face, I knew right then: It didn't matter what she said. Someday, someway, there would be a baby.

But before that, there was Stanley, and what everyone in our family considered the most romantic relationship of our generation. I remember them coming to visit, early on. It was a bad night; one of my kids had come down with a horrible case of stomach flu and was throwing up all over the house. I kept getting up to tend to him. I don't think either of them noticed. They were totally oblivious--so completely immersed in each other, they could have been on the moon. Finally they left, both of them glowing, under their own private glass bell.

And then, of course, there was her miracle daughter, beautiful Nona, who she adored from the moment she was born, who made her so proud. A few years ago, at one holiday or another, we were sitting around quietly, letting our kids--Nona, my nephew, one of my sons--do the talking. Ellen nudged me. "I feel like... wow, here are these prize watermelons we grew," she said.

Ellen and I always talked nonstop when we were together, one long endless conversation, throughout our lives. But in the last few years, for some reason it seemed even more important to sit close to each other, hold hands, keep our arms around each other. Even when walking down a street or sitting at a restaurant. Just like we did when we were little, between squabbles. I have no idea why this was true, why we felt this need, but it felt so comforting, somehow. And necessary. I guess it was a way of saying without words, You know how much I've always loved you, don't you? You know how important you've always been to me, right? How much I'll miss you, forever.

Edits & Permissions

By Sean Wilentz

My strongest and fondest memories of Ellen Willis date back to the Village Voice during the mid-1980s. I was a young history professor at Princeton, just finishing my first book and wanting to break out in my writing beyond the academy. She was a legend of radical journalism, not just for her feminist essays, not even for her New Yorker rock ‘n’ roll column, but most of all for being a fine writer who took risks. Having snuck a review of a book of mine about, of all people, Martin Van Buren, into the fledgling Voice Literary Supplement, M. Mark, the VLS’s editor-in-chief assigned me to Ellen. Not, I hasten to add, Ellen to me, in the usual author-and-editor relation. Ellen would be my instructor as well as my editor, getting me to loosen and brighten up my prose without sounding like too much of a smartass (an occupational hazard at underground newspapers). She became my friend, but she began as my teacher and I was one of her projects.

It was, looking back, a heady place to start out as a reviewer and essayist. The corner of the paper that was the VLS was very much a women’s corner, run by M. and Ellen and with a good deal of input from Karen Durbin. The supplement was serious but also the exact opposite of stodgy, and having women in charge, especially those women, meant looking for ways to do something unconventional. And Ellen, in her un-showy way, was in the middle of everything.

Her unassuming manner was egalitarian but also shy. For me, her lack of arrogance helped soothe my ego, since she was a demanding, no-nonsense editor. Although she claimed to know little about the history books I mostly wrote about, she knew well about where soft-soap and cheap shots and equivocation could lurk in a piece, which from my vantage point was much more important. She did not stint on praise, especially when she found a thought or a line particularly witty (and flashed her quiet smile), but she did not dwell on what she liked. Instead, she patiently explained what was wrong with what she didn’t like, how this transition didn’t track and this metaphor was flat; and she made me re-write and re-write whole paragraphs, even whole reviews. Since the VLS appeared monthly, she must have regarded this as working at a leisurely pace; to me it was frenetic. It was an education in getting things at least close to right on the first draft.

Ellen was especially adept at bringing fuzzy or recondite thoughts into focus, giving them some sort of living cultural connection, assimilating them to her own world of ‘60’s movement politics (which I’d known intimately only when its decomposition began) without losing anything in the translation. Once in a while, she’d even let me steal a good line. I recall one phone-edit session, in which the two of us puzzled over the right words for expressing my dismay about the 1930s Popular Front. “I don’t know,” she blurted out, “it’s just that when I think of the Popular Front, I think of bad art.” The line went directly into the review. It is the only fragment of any of my VLS essays that I’ve seen quoted since: I’m happy to admit now that it was Ellen’s.

The more I worked with her, and the friendlier we became, the more I admired Ellen as a thinker and writer in her own right. Her abundant intelligence was inseparable from her integrity. I need not go on, in this venue, about the intellectual conformism of the ‘60’s and post-‘60s countercultural Left. To my mind, Ellen would write or say things that fell into familiar grooves, especially when she was in one of her utopian, sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll moments. But more often, she bravely defied left-wing conformism, even on delicate topics like race, crime, or poverty. “Look,” she’d sometimes say, as she was about to flay some leftist sacred cow, “my father was a cop, and….” Indeed, her father was a cop. But Ellen came by her views from a bedrock sense of decency and honesty, which she thought all persons deserved – including crime victims, which at the time was not a constituency the Left honored very much.

Ellen could also find intelligence in things most of us considered drab or ordinary or vapid. Towards the end of my VLS days, she worked up quite an enthusiasm for newspaper advice columnists, especially for Ann Landers. Ellen saw the feminist intuition in an Ann Landers column, and she understood how advice to the lovelorn could be some of the most important advice around. Ellen, in short, was no snob – and her insistence on not being one led her into some quirky and underappreciated places.

One day, in jest but also in admiration, I cut-and-taped together a campaign button and gave it to Ellen: Ann Landers For President. During what I think was my last visit to the old Voice offices – and what turned out to be, sadly, one of the last times we spoke at length, though we’d occasionally be in touch – I saw the button stuck into her cubicle wall. Beneath it was a poster of a comic character going through a meat grinder, with the legend, “The truth shall set you free, but it’s going to hurt first.” A radical sentiment, but in Ellen’s formulation a deeply humane and sympathetic one as well, which says a lot about why I cherished her then and miss her now.

The Harder They Come

By Claudine Ko

When I applied to the cultural reporting and criticism program at NYU, which Ellen Willis founded and directed, it was the only one of its kind. And still is, I'm pretty sure. Other J-schools had your typical newspaper/magazine/broadcast sub-divisions, but it seemed only Ellen – one-time New Yorker rock critic, Rolling Stone and Village Voice writer, pro-sex feminist – understood that there were young journalists out there who were interested in covering more than the usual; that, as her 22-year-old daughter Nona puts it, "pop culture, politics and national identity were all inextricable." In my application essay, I wrote that I intended to report on Asian, Asian-American, and youth popular culture: how rock 'n roll affected gay politics in China, punk subculture in OC, the films of Wong Kar Wai. A couple months later, she called offering me a spot in the department.

Once, at a party, Lou Reed walked up to her and said, "So, this is what Ellen Willis looks like." She stared back at him with her deep, sleepy eyes and nodded, "Yep." I imagine she must have intimidated him just like she intimidated many of us grad students with her infinite brilliance, halting speech, and constant contemplation of ideas.

We should only be so lucky to be so fierce.


By Stanley Aronowitz

The most amazing aspect of Ellen’s illness was that she survived lung cancer for almost 20 months; only in the last six weeks, after her oncologist discovered the cancer had spread to the liver, did she experience severe physical effects such as shortness of breath, balance problems, a severe cold and finally her inability to communicate through speech, in the last week. She was diagnosed in February 2005 after a routine physical which our physician administered a chest x-ray, part of his routine. Subsequently she underwent chemo, radiation and an experimental oral drug. In addition she took vitamins and herbal stuff. She visited a Reichian bio-physical therapist in Germany, but it was probably too late. Who knows whether these alternatives and allopathic remedies combined to prolong her life. I am convinced it was her own grit, her refusal to succumb that was the decisive reason she resisted death so long.

Having said all this, the emotional impact was devastating from the outset. Gradually she turned more inward as her battle became more intense. I spent a great deal of time with her, taking her to doctors and treatments, two summers in our country house full-time and many discussions about the malady and what to make of its various aspects. But her withdrawal was unmistakable. Since she was a Reichian and a Freudian, I must conclude that her diagnosis followed closely on her mother's death from lung cancer in July 2004. This came on the heels of her father's death only three years earlier. Neither of them had been smokers, so we concluded there was some genetic predisposition. But her mother died at 90 and Ellen was only 64. So something else was operative.

Needless to say, the cancer was over-determined. Genetic predisposition notwithstanding, the polluted environment which has contributed to a veritable cancer epidemic must be taken into account. But the emotional issues lurk in the shadows and, from my vantage point, were crucial. We say the personal is political. But for Ellen the political became very personal. She was deeply affected by the pall in the political situation, not the least of which was the precipitous decline of radicalism, especially radical feminism. She was depressed by her perception that, however much she was "admired," her ideas had been effectively excluded from the public conversation, that few of her generation or the next had taken up her attempts to link freedom and equality, to raise the most fundamental questions of human relations. I cannot avoid the conclusion that, despite her incredible talents and achievements, at the deepest level she died of despair. She was the founder and director of an innovative cultural reporting and criticism program at NYU, and she has a legion of loving and devoted students. But her teaching and administrative accomplishments gave her little satisfaction. We raised a luminous, brilliant and beautiful daughter and Nona gave Ellen some solace. But Ellen's referent , like mine, was history and in this respect she never accepted the argument that we live in uncertain and often dark times and that individuals can have only a limited effect on them. Having said all this, she was supremely confident of her ability, but not at all of her capacity to impose her ideas and her personality on the world. In the end this may have defeated her.

Yet we managed to remain partners, sharing our writing and thoughts intimately and constantly. I have never had a more devoted and sharp critic. What I miss most are the times--at breakfast, in the car, at night reading together and separately--when we exchanged ironic barbs as much as views. In short, my everyday life has been altered. However different in many respects, our sensibilities converged.

From June, 2007