booknotes: when we were outlaws

In many ways, Jeanne Córdova's memoir, When We Were Outlaws: A Memoir of Love and Revolution (Midway, Fla.: Spinster's Ink, 2011), couldn't be more different than the last memoir of the 70s I reviewed here at the feminist librarian: Patricia Harmon's Arms Wide Open. Harmon's memoir told the tale of a self-trained hippie midwife who moved with sons and male lovers through several different rural communes before entering medical school for formal nurse-midwifery training. Jeanne Córdova, by contrast, spent the 1970s in the Los Angeles area free-lancing as a journalist and activist in what were then referred to as the women's and gay liberation movements. A self-identified butch, she came of age as part of the lesbian bar culture of the 50s and 60s, then discovered gay liberation and feminism in 70s. Córdova was the founding editor of The Lesbian Tide newsmagazine and the human rights editor of the L.A. Free Press, interviewing radicals on both the left and the right on the run from the law. As she observes in her introduction, "this memoir visits many outlaws, some freedom fighters, and a few who would be called terrorists ... I needed to know and sort out these outlaws in my mind in order to discover the perimeters of my own moral compass ... Outlaws takes place at the intersection of shadow and shade that differentiate between persona and principle" (vii).

Yet I found myself, while reading Outlaws, thinking often of Harmon's memoir and the parallels between both works in scope and tone. And in the relationship (in text, at least) between the authors and their own personal and political pasts. Like Arms Wide Open, When We Were Outlaws seeks to tell a specific slice of the authors life, rather than starting with childhood and moving through the years in an orderly progression. Both authors chose, as their time-frame, the turbulent years of the 1970s when the heady, optimistic social change movements of the late 1960s led to more complicated lived realities for those who championed leftist causes and a counterculture way of life. Córdova focuses on her life and work between 1974-1975, with some flashbacks and flash forwards to help us make sense of the dense web of associations -- political and personal -- that characterized that time, both for Córdova specifically and her fellow activists in what was then called "the Movement" more broadly. Like Arms, Outlaws gives us an in-the-moment perspective on the life of someone struggling to live out her political convictions in her personal life. For Jeanne Córdova this means an up-close, and in many ways unshrinking, view of her involvement with lesbian separatist politics in relation to the gay liberation movement more broadly. It also means intimate portraits of her trial-and-error practice of open relationships, as she paints a portrait of her involvement with two women -- the long-term relationship in which she and her partner have negotiated non-monogamy, and the quickening of an intense love affair with a fellow activist that threatens the stability of her more permanent ties.

It has become a commonplace, since almost before they began, to identify the leftist social movements of the 60s and 70s as enthusiasms of youth, as romantic idealism (or destructive self-absorption, depending on your political persuasion) that necessarily gave way to realistic politicking and material concerns. In some ways this is true. Many of the individuals who populate When We Were Outlaws are young adults in or just out of undergraduate or graduate school programs, young professionals or struggling under-employed twentysomethings. They don't (yet) have dependents to care for, and are geographically mobile, often living on the economic edge. They're at the point in their lives where they're developing a sense of what kind of life they want for themselves and those they care about -- what kind of work they find meaningful, what values they hold dear, what kind of relationships they want to build and maintain. Often, their answers (however tentative) to these questions are at odds with the answers their parents or the activists of the previous generations gave.

Yet despite the youth (and youthful perspective) of its protagonist, I would argue that Outlaws pushes us to re-examine our assumptions that the moral dilemmas and vision for a better future that Córdova and her cohort were immersed in are solely the province of the young -- impetuosity that will necessarily give way as one grows into more seasoned adulthood. One of the most interesting narrative threads in Outlaws traces the relationship between Córdova and her political mentor/substitute parental figure Morris Kight. Kight was a mover and shaker in L.A. gay political activism, someone with whom Córdova worked closely and fell out publicly over the place of women in the gay liberation movement. Their differences aren't so much conservative elders vs. radical youth but something more complicated -- a difference in experience, of power, of privilege. In the very personal (yet also political) struggle between Kight and Córdova we can see all the complications inherent in working for social justice, complications that don't get, well, less complicated -- or less relevant -- as we grow older.

Córdova reflects back on her younger self with a sometimes-critical, yet always compassionate eye. While the narrative style is "novelized memoir" (to use the author's own choice of phrase), one nevertheless gets the sense that the author both knows well her protagonist's faults and cares very deeply for her younger self, no matter how flawed her present self may find that person of the past. "I was not born knowing how to love," is how she open's her introduction. "It came to me late in life" (vii). In the pages of Outlaws we see her be cruel to lovers, ideologically ruthless, politically short-sighted, and cripplingly addicted to booze and prescription drugs. At the same time, we see a heart-breakingly young woman who's been physically evicted from her childhood home (for bringing home a lover), is living with serious and intermittently-treated depression, experiences chronic under-employment, and who nonetheless is working hard to build a meaningful life for herself and a better future for us all. Whether you agree with the young Córdova's means and visionary ends doesn't necessarily detract from the import of such a closely-rendered self-portrait.

I suspect we're only in the early years of a richly textured new wave of 70s-era autobiography which will shed new light on the particularity of growing into adulthood during a period when even the most fundamental of questions concerning how we organize our personal and political lives seemed to be in real, material flux. I am also happy (quite selfishly, I admit!) about the way these personal perspectives will provide unique, and accessible, primary source material for historians of the period, even while many historical sources remain in private hands (and therefore often invisible-to-researchers). Córdova's memoir would provide a rich jumping-off point in a course that sought to explore this era in all its rich historical realities -- and I hope it prompts many readers to re-examine what they think they know about the political contours of the decade.

This review was made possible by the generousity of Lynn Ballen at Spinster's Ink who provided me with an advance review copy of the book. The book is available now for purchase online or at your brick-and-mortar bookstore of choice. You can read more about the memoir and its author at www.jeannecordova.com.

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