Academic journal article Afterimage

The Chainletter Tapes

Academic journal article Afterimage

The Chainletter Tapes

Article excerpt

The slot in our front door rattled, and my sister received a letter. I read it, looking over her shoulder. Quickly, she folded it up and put it away, dismissing it: "It's just a chain letter." I was concerned--it looked important. It listed a number of handwritten signatures, including some of her friends. It was the year of the Bicentennial; to my child's eyes, it looked like a version of the United States Constitution. It read, "If the pattern is not broken, there is no way it can not work. Be sure to copy this letter entirely. OMIT NONE OF IT!" The envelope was addressed to my sister, but its message suggested the unknown power of an organized group. Filled with casual threats, but also the vague possibility of change, its language was strange and foreboding. It thrilled me. Like a stone dropped into a pool, its effect seemed to circle around our house in ever-widening echoes: its promise could only be fulfilled if the rules were followed. That is, if she was a good girl and did it correctly. I was not yet ten years old, and the directives of this kind of magical thinking appealed to me.


Years later, long after my sister had left for good, I remember Bill placing headphones on my ears during study hall. I felt like I was under a waterfall--it was the Minutemen. Their sound signaled something beyond my orderly, isolated, and circumscribed world. Punk as a sound, an idea, a style, a band of outsiders, helped focus my chaotic inner life. I liked its brainy, edgy, intricate apocalyptic vision.

In 1992, I crash-landed in Washington, DC; I was in freefall. Trained in assiduous self-presentation, my life was about surviving, which meant hiding and muffling my emotions. But what had been my false front finally began falling apart. Too much had happened to me for my body's surface to contain, and I was spinning out of control. With no words, no context, and no dialogue in which to express my experience, I had no way of finding an alternate path. I desperately needed something or somebody onto which I could hold, like a life preserver.

In August, as if following a trail of breadcrumbs, I attended the Riot Grrrl Convention. I went to Dupont Circle to see the free performances. Juliana Luecking, the spoken-word artist, opened the set. In drag, she presented a sophisticated man of the world, wearing a smoking jacket, slippers, and smoking a pipe. He made me smile, reminding me of several familiar male figures combined: my father, Hugh Hefner, and Mr. Howell from Gilligan's Island. Accompanying him was a tall, lanky bassist with long scraggly hair named Bernie, also in drag, as a Playboy bunny. In fishnet stockings, her hairy legs looked gangly. Their first story was about spray-painting the word "F-U-C-K"--slowly, letter by letter--on a wall in capital letters. After they performed, the Shrieking Violets played, and then Cheesecake.

Around me was a crowd of people, mostly young women. On the edges of the group were curious passersby, mostly men, uncomprehending. Looking like camp counselors, organizers held clipboards and had tied their T-shirts underneath their breasts. On their stomachs they had scrawled "RAPE" and "SLUT" in black marker.

I was invited to go to a party the next afternoon at the Positive Force House. Taking the metro to the Clarendon stop, I walked the rest of the way. The girls were rowdy, and there were no boys. I had never experienced an environment like this before. Laughing in the doorway, Mary looked like a gangsta rapper, shoving her hand in her jeans and grabbing her crotch. For five bucks, I got a Shrinky Dinks necklace that said "Riot Grrrl DC." I wore the chain around my neck.

After that, I went to meetings, which were closed to boys. Huddled in our hard-won territory, we were like Daria and her friends from The Little Rascals (1922-44) with a sign on the door, askew: Mo Boys Allowed. Importantly, this space gave us time to speak and be heard. …

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