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Tears and Laughter for Naomi Weisstein

A report from the memorial in New York City

Long a fixture of progressive culture in New York City, The New School opened its doors on September 20, 2015 to host a memorial celebration of the life, achievements, and activist causes of the remarkable Naomi Weisstein. Weisstein, who died last March at age 75, was a pathbreaking neuroscientist, woman in science, radical feminist, humorist, and co-founder of an all-women’s rock band (the Chicago Women’s Liberation Rock Band), before such things existed. Given this range, it is tempting to call her a Renaissance Woman. But she is in truth emblematic of another transformative era: the 1960s and ‘70s, when people like herself smashed all kinds of barriers and inherited wisdoms. Doing so, they opened new possibilities for the blossoming of human talent and the expression of intelligence, conviction, character, personality, and love. Like all great pioneers, Weisstein paved the road she walked, empowering others to come along with her and chart still newer paths.

She did not, of course, do it alone, as the very presence of her many friends and associates at the memorial made vivid. The program featured such luminaries in second-wave feminism as Heather Booth, Alix Kates Shulman, Amy Kesselman, and Gloria Steinem, as well the eminent gay liberation historian and activist Martin Duberman. (Indeed, in attendance were most of the members of the Chicago Westside Group, of which Weisstein was a part; founded in 1967, it was the first radical feminist group in the country, oriented towards both consciousness-raising and direct action.) What they, Weisstein, and so many of their comrades accomplished, they accomplished together, in a collective project both propelled by and supportive of their individual gifts. At the memorial, each eloquent voice wove itself into a tapestry of solidarity.

The whole event, to an activist and scholar of a later generation like myself, had the aura of an extraordinary cohort — aware of its contribution to history and the challenges that will outlive it — marking the loss of a great partner in struggle. “Intrepid Naomi,” in Martin Duberman’s phrasing, was a “brazen cheerleader for audacity.” Heather Booth, in her spirited convocation, dubbed Weisstein a “fierce warrior for women’s liberation” and a “brilliant disrupter.” The ultimate message of the gathering was to “learn, share, and pass on her legacy.”

Weisstein died, as her husband Jesse Lemisch detailed, at the end of a month-long hospitalization. Her demise was pocked by injuriously inept and condescending care, reflecting the arrogance of a white, male medical establishment against which Weisstein famously raged. And her death came after decades of infirmity from a case of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome so acute that she was bedridden for more than thirty years.

Even so, none at the memorial appeared emotionally or intellectually ready for her death, or stilled in their grief by the months since her passing. Duberman declared her loss “unimaginably awful.” Fighting tears, Lemisch — a famous, radical historian in his own right, who lovingly described he and Naomi as “a sect of two” — revised Joe Hill’s storied injunction to read “mourn and organize.” It was a public event, about an historical figure, led by people who have had very public lives. But it had also the intimacy of very private grief, registering the particular sting of a specific loss. (For much of the event, my frame of reference was not that of an historian or activist-admirer of my 1960s forbearers, but of a son who had lost some years ago his mother, memorialized in a similarly joyous and anguished event.) It derived its power, in part, from its attestations to the nobility of commitment to a transcendent cause and the impermanence of all attachments, the immortality of influence, at whatever scale, and the fragility of an individual life.

At times, the event felt like an indoor rally, with exhortations to keep struggle and hope alive. Much of it was political cabaret, featuring samples of Wiesstein’s kick-ass rock music, clever and bawdy comedy, and guerrilla theatrics of the sort made most famous by W.I.T.C.H., the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell. Colleagues in science conveyed to non-expert ears the nature of Weisstein’s research and magnitude of her professional accomplishments, especially in the field of cognitive science. She remained, they stressed, a true believer in the democracy of the scientific method, even while deeply critical of the gross exclusions and warped frames of so much of the practice of science.

But a great through-line was Weisstein’s uncanny fight (joined by her husband, and many home health care workers, who were acknowledged to great applause) against a devastating disease. Weisstein’s last scientific paper was in 1992, when she was deep into her illness. Subsequent projects were intermittent and taxing beyond belief. Writing just 15 minutes a day could bring her eyes excruciating pain. Through great effort, she maintained her friendships as living relationships, not exercises in nostalgia or pity. Referencing both the personal and the political — and suggesting the link between the two — Duberman described her as the most courageous person he had ever known.

Gloria Steinem had the difficult task of the final word. I confess feeling star-struck by her presence and curious as to how her uniquely iconic stature might shape her remarks. To my surprise, Steinem did not assess Weisstein’s contribution to feminism or feminism’s place in American history. Instead, she focused with regal poise on an experience and subject dear to Weisstein’s heart: laughter. Part of Weisstein’s feminism was to indict “the politics of false laughter.” So much of what passes for humor, Weisstein illuminated, trades in belittling stereotypes of women, whether the nagging wife or irascible mother in law. Laughter was also at the core of Weisstein’s anti-authoritarianism. Beware any society, she warned, that demands false laughter or prohibits the joyous giggle. Though often dependent on the cognitive recognition of dissonance and dashed expectations, laughter feels pre-rational, unhinged from conscious judgment, exalted, and free.

Herein lay perhaps the mission of her life: on the one hand, to find, enjoy, share, and expand spaces of freedom — whether accessed through intellectual inquiry, political struggle, music, or laughter; on the other hand, to understand thoroughly, defy, and disassemble the structures that keep ideas, whole groups, individuals, and laughter unfree. Released from the pains of the body, her spirit may still guide others to keep thinking, fighting, creating, and laughing.

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Jeremy Varon

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