The Landmark Lesbian Novel Published 25 Years Ago

Reading between the lines.
Oct. 11 2013 12:26 PM

I Was Burning

Sarah Schulman’s landmark lesbian novel of grief and rage, 25 years later.

131010_SBR_ILLO_afterDelores

Illustration by Peter Bagge

In 1988 I was living 3,000 miles from my family. We spoke on the telephone once a week, but we didn’t see each other for years at a stretch. We weren’t estranged so much as strange to each other; my gayness was just one more thing we didn’t have in common, yet another topic we didn’t discuss. At the time, the distance between us didn’t even seem peculiar. Among my peers, PFLAG parents were the exception. Coming out was often met with threats of expulsion from the family or worse. I had friends who were institutionalized and knew at least one man whose parents put ground glass in his food when he told them he was gay.

June Thomas June Thomas

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

Everyone figured their folks would eventually come around, and most did—even if they always seemed more invested in the lives of their heterosexual offspring. Still, knowing you’re a disappointment at best takes a toll. That year, Sarah Schulman explored the damage families inflict on their LGBT members in After Delores, now freshly re-released in a 25th anniversary edition by Arsenal Pulp Press.

In the novel’s first six pages, the lone wolf of a narrator gets drunk, makes out with a girl, obsesses about her ex-girlfriend, and acquires a gun. It’s an astonishingly efficient establishment of themes, because considerations of booze, sex, violence, and abandonment dominate the rest of the book. There’s a plot of sorts—while nursing some serious ill will against her ex-girlfriend Delores, the narrator tries to figure out who killed go-go dancer Punkette—but it’s a mystery novel only in the loosest sense of the term. Our nameless narrator is no private dick, and her drunken meanderings around New York City barely qualify as an investigation. But she does want justice for Punkette. Somebody has to hold society accountable for her murder, and who better than an unstable outcast?

Advertisement

The cover of the new edition features an unmade bed—a bed the narrator can no longer bear to sleep in after Delores takes off, abandoning their shared Lower East Side walkup so that she can trade up to fashion photographer Mary Sunshine’s Tribeca loft. There was no good reason for Delores to leave—no rational explanation for the narrator to go from being “the person Delores cared about the most [to] the one she most wants to break,” except perhaps her refusal to lie and promise that they’d never break up. “I couldn’t say ‘forever’ unless I knew for sure it was true,” she declares, while Delores’ new girlfriend, Sunshine, said “forever” without a second thought.

Without a good explanation for the terrible treatment Delores meted out to her, the narrator loses her grip, first on her drinking and then on her impulse control. “If I had money, I would have gone to a decent psychiatric hospital,” she says, “but instead I was just another pathetic person on the Lower East Side.” A pathetic person with serious anger issues. As soon as she lays hands on that pearl-handled pistol, she fantasizes about using it to shoot Delores and dreams of cutting Sunshine’s face open with a can opener.

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

iOS 8 Comes Out Today. Do Not Put It on Your iPhone 4S.

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.

Jurisprudence

Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

My Father Was James Brown. I Watched Him Beat My Mother. Then I Married Someone Like Him.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 17 2014 12:02 PM Here It Is: The Flimsiest Campaign Attack Ad of 2014, Which Won’t Stop Running
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
  Life
The Vault
Sept. 17 2014 1:04 PM The War Department's WWII Advice Booklet for Soldiers Headed to Syria
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 1:26 PM Hey CBS, Rihanna Is Exactly Who I Want to See on My TV Before NFL Football Games
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 1:01 PM A Rare, Very Unusual Interview With Michael Jackson, Animated
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 12:35 PM IOS 8 Comes Out Today. Do Not Put It on Your iPhone 4S.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 17 2014 11:18 AM A Bridge Across the Sky
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.