‘Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over (A Companion to the Film by Beth B)’ (excerpt)

An accompaniment to Beth B's documentary of the same name, Nick Soulsby's book is the first comprehensive overview of Lunch's creative campaign of resistance, a celebration of pleasure as the ultimate act of rebellion. Enjoy this excerpt courtesy of Jawbone Press.

Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over
Nick Soulsby
April 2020

Prologue: Baby Doll

LYDIA LUNCH I’m thirteen years old and it’s a blizzard and I’m standing in front of the Monroe Movie Theatre—an X-rated movie theatre a little bit from downtown—and I’m waiting for the bus. I’m in a rabbit-fur jacket, short skirt, platform boots. It’s a whiteout and the bus isn’t coming, and a car circles around and asks me if I want a ride. I’m like, ‘No, I’m waiting for the bus.’ He circles around again. ‘I said I’m waiting for the bus.’ He circles around the third time and says, ‘The bus isn’t coming. Where are you going?’ I said, ‘Straight up the road a mile.’ He’s like, ‘Get in.’ I do.

He looks like Robert Blake with a cheese-grater complexion. His car is littered with fast-food wrappers and junk, and the first thing he says to me is, ‘It’s not about sex.’ I said, ‘It better not be.’ ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m trying to get out of here.’ I meant not only from the bus stop—I’m trying to get out of Rochester. He goes, ‘I guess you need money for that.’ I’m like, ‘Yes, I do.’ And he puts, I don’t know whether it was a twenty or a fifty—because even twenty dollars in ’73 was a lot of money—on the dashboard. I’m going just one mile up a straight road and twilight is falling and it’s white and blue and we’re driving, and he says, ‘Tell me a story about your sisters.’ I start making stuff up. And we’re driving, and two, three blocks from my house is this park, and we drive to the top and again the snow is falling and it’s azure blue and it’s beautiful. And I’m talking, and he takes a dead cigarette out of the ashtray.

He just says, ‘Open your mouth.’ I do. And he puts it in my mouth. I have no fear at all. And then he says, ‘Now get out of the car,’ and I do. He opens the trunk and pulls out a shotgun, ‘Lick the car tires,’ and he holds the shotgun to my head, and I lick the car tires. Really, at that point, I was so dead in so many parts that I had no fear, so I smiled. And I licked the tires. And then I don’t know whether he came or not, but he said, ‘Oh my god, that was so beautiful … you know it’s not about sex?’ And that’s when I knew, no, it wasn’t about sex, it was about power. And, in that moment, I had the power. And he lifted me gently and he put me in the car, and he goes, ‘Can I have your phone number?’ I gave it to him, and he drove me home, of course, at the corner. He called me a few days later, but I’m like, I won, and I will always win, and I’m afraid I can’t see you, my friend. He wanted to take me up to Watkins Glen State Park to shoot photos—I knew I would never come back from that. After that, I thought it was important to tell stories, because they’re not always about sex, even when I talk about sex, but they are always about power and the imbalance. If I had been frightened, I would have been shot.


Photo of Lydia Lunch by © Christina Birrer (courtesy of Jawbone Press)

JASMINE HIRST The 80s, everyone was utterly silent about the way women were treated, about the everyday violence, about what we had to put up with. We didn’t even talk about it privately because it was just so normal. At this point in my life, I believe I’ve met only one woman who experienced not one form of sexual abuse, harassment, or exploitation in her life—it’s a given that if you’re female you’ve had some sort of experience. The culture in Australia is a rape culture.

BETH B I’m interested in anything where there’s power and control—out of control! It has fascinated me from childhood because I was battling this from a young age. I came out of a household, and a time, where women were seen and not heard. They were the sex kitten, the housewife—they were not employable in the way they are today. My father came over from Vienna escaping the Nazis, and he was oppressive and dominating and scary, he frightened me. He would hit, yell, berate, and I was a very fiery young girl who would stand with my hands on my hips and say, ‘No!’ Our home was a typical 50s household—male-dominated, with the women scurrying around servicing the father’s every whim. My mom did that until she had a nervous breakdown, was hospitalised, was suicidal, when I was thirteen years old. So many women of that time had breakdowns, committed suicide; so many women I know from that time had mothers who had breakdowns or became completely depressed. Do the shopping, have dinner ready, take care of the kids. I grew up not having an example of a woman who had a voice. She had to figure out her own identity, and, in some ways, the foundation of much of my work comes from that dynamic that I grew up with. I understood at a young age that I would not allow that in my life. I’ve been in battle mode since I was young, figuring out how to survive in that power structure. You take that rebellion with you everywhere you go, into every future relationship that may not pose a threat, but you’re wired for threat, and you’re wired to react—which often doesn’t serve you well in life. Where Lydia and I have taken similar paths is in the self-therapeutic nature of our work.

CATHI UNSWORTH Where I grew up, in Norfolk, in England, child abuse was rife. The nurses used an expression, ‘NFN’—’Normal For Norfolk’—which meant inbreeding. A lot of people I went to school with suffered hideously and were passed around their own families at very young ages. I wrote about it in one of my books, Weirdo, but made it happen to older children because I didn’t think people could stomach that it was happening to junior-school-age kids I knew. There’s something about the British national character that’s like a battered wife with too many children, her husband down the pub drinking away the money while she tries to hold it all together—that’s how I thought of the society I grew up in. People pretended it wasn’t happening, but it was really obvious where I grew up. The culture of the 70s was misogynistic and quite violent about both women and children—neither had many rights.

VIVIENNE DICK In Ireland, at that time, you were very much a second-class citizen as a woman. Once I got into filmmaking, I saw film as a mode of expression that was really controlled mostly by men. There were very few women making films, and this continued all the way until years later, teaching film in Galway. The students, both male and female, favoured male protagonists when writing scripts. I was shocked by this. It was like there was a block on a story being told from a woman’s perspective, or a woman telling her story. It wasn’t just in film, it was across all the arts. My boyfriend at the time—who was French—introduced me to a lot of contemporary art, and we went to a lot of interesting galleries in France, Germany, and the UK. Most of the work I saw was by men—and it’s not that I don’t like work by men, I like a lot of work by men—but as a woman you feel, Why is that?

CARLA BOUZULICH I prefer to see the things that happened to me as a child and as a young woman—which were very severe things—as my responsibility. Not that I did them all to myself, but I want to own the possibility of healing. If I’m feeling pain or feeling ‘done to’ by a memory, I can’t control my own healing, and fuck that! I don’t want to live the rest of my life powerless like that. I really can’t speak for Lydia, I don’t know why she does what she does, but I don’t feel she is exorcising her demons. Her work has changed drastically, so you can’t say one thing about Lydia and have it cover the span of her career. When I listen to Teenage Jesus & The Jerks, I hear a playfulness and a petulance and how fun it must have been to fuck with people that hard. Fun! I think her work is way more powerful now, but I still don’t think she’s exorcising demons except maybe your demons, you know?

BETH B When people speak of mental illness, of trauma, there’s this horrifying idea—perhaps sold to them by big pharma—that you take this, or you do this, and you’ll be cured! There is no cure. Trauma resides in the body—it’s always there, looking for a way to come out again. If you arrest it with medication then it will just come out at another time, another place. There’s the notion that you go through rehab and you’re cured, but the reality is in the phrase ‘in recovery’, it’s always a work in progress.

LYDIA LUNCH The sentence I came up with that made the most sense to me is that, sometimes, when you need the smallest, most tender action or attention, and you don’t get it, you will look for the biggest monster in the room. Now, what the fuck? Really, what you need is the tenderness you were denied as a child, but as a defence mechanism, if you’re not going to get it, you look for something monstrous to compensate in a reverse and negative way. Trauma is greedy, so it’s like, OK, if you can’t calm me down, I’m going to fuck you up.

We’re all victims of the family in one way or another. It’s an imperfect system. Coming out of our generation, the 50s, parents of that generation didn’t have the knowledge or the tools for nutrition, and they didn’t talk about the abuse they had suffered. Usually abuse is transgenerational. Once I realised that my father’s behaviour, and my mother’s … not denial but blindness to it, that it didn’t start with them, I had a better understanding of how the world works in general. Once you’ve been damaged it’s really hard, no matter how many years of psychological investigation, of public psychotherapy, of emotional release, there is always some form of trauma that lives in the body and that will manifest in one way or another. Even if, intellectually and psychologically, you’ve understood that the repercussions of this are worldwide, from the beginning of time, there’s still always some mark or scar because trauma is a greedy emotion. If you’ve been traumatised, even if you’ve been steady, you’re steady for five years, and then—trauma. This happens with people that have alcohol or drug abuse problems, they might be sober for quite a long time, but then that greedy, needy, trauma is like, Hey, what about me? What about me? That’s something I’ve been working on and fighting my whole life.

KATHLEEN FOX As a late teen and as someone in my early twenties who did not speak about any of the sexual violence that had occurred in my life to that point, just the very fact that Lydia was out there was a comfort to me until I was able to be comfortable enough with my own self to be who I was as a person and control that anger and never be afraid of anyone again and not ever have to be a victim again.

BETH B Lydia became a model for a lot of women, then and now, to move out of the fear and into the expansive possibilities of having a voice and doing it unapologetically. As a young woman I was always apologising for myself, apologising for any small little thing that was wrong or out of the realm of what was supposed to be. In a way, I do have to say it gave me a lot of permission, to know that we could translate that fear into rage.

There needs to be more support for women’s stories. You see all the shit put out in films, and there are so many stories about men—why can’t we hear women? There should be a space for the voice of aging women, too, because that’s an even worse situation. Our culture just does not want to hear from women over a certain age. The taboo of menopause, being grey, becoming invisible—I really had to choose to be grey-haired because it’s a political choice. Women cannot go grey, cannot wrinkle, cannot have age spots, they cannot have a dry vagina, because none of it is sexy, and we have no use in our culture for women who are not sexy. It’s so sad. I’m of that age where I understand I am a powerful female, but I am invisible to the wider world—that’s the next battle in my life because I am the silver fox and I still have a vagina between my legs! It’s the last taboo!

KEMBRA PFAHLER Lydia was bareness and rawness around sex and presentation and her being herself. It’s ‘To thine own self be true.’ She has such a fearlessness about her, and her sexuality is just about being fearless. Courageousness isn’t a big part of everyone’s life, and most of us live in fear completely. I personally was so afraid of my own sexuality—I was so self-hating when I was developing as a young lady. I hated being female. I hated having to be recognised as a part of the female population. I remember being asked in college, ‘What is your opinion, representing fifty percent of the world, as a woman?’ And he was looking at me and asking me how I felt, and I remember saying, ‘Are you talking to me?’ Because I had no idea what he meant.

BETH B In my film Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over, sometimes it’s shocking, realising that it was the early 80s and Lydia was having to battle to be heard, to talk about the abuse and the power from her father, to God, to the patriarchy—that structure was so huge, we couldn’t open our mouths to question it. She was doing it before Oprah—nobody was speaking about it, it was forbidden. Some of my work has been about women and hysteria. Sometimes we have to become a little hysterical, because when you’re not being heard it just sits like a knot tied within you, and it can come out in these very disturbed ways. With Lydia, it came out in the beautiful form of poetry. With me, it came out in my films where the female protagonists were trying to grapple with what was expected of them—the things we have learnt are normal, that make us comfortable even if it’s a horror story—and the desire, the need to break away from that which otherwise destroys and oppresses us.

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Excerpted from Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over (A Companion To The Film By Beth B) by © Nick Soulsby, published in the UK and USA by © Jawbone Press All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.