Frantic Transmissions: On Kate Braverman
JANUARY 12, 2018
KATE BRAVERMAN’S LITERARY OEUVRE is as poignant today as ever, for hers is an American feminist voice that very much contributes to the current dialogue. The autobiographical Lithium for Medea, her debut novel published in 1979, is a coming-of-age experience, delving into the psyche of a young woman battling with complex, destructive relationships, and family trauma. What stands out is the protagonist’s path to emancipation, akin to the Greek figure Medea, who possessed great strength and intelligence, as portrayed in feminist readings of the myth. Set in Los Angeles during the Nixon years, Braverman’s novel features a heroine engulfed in a deep malaise, caused in part by the dark secrets in her family history as well as her own, which come to light one after the other. The main character, Rose, is both addicted to shooting cocaine and to her lover Jason, whom she lives with on the Venice Canals. Trapped in a cycle difficult to break, her experience is recognizable to women who have been in unhealthy relationships. This retelling, however, is direct and raw, and as Braverman said of herself: “The buzz is, I’m difficult to work with. If I were male, that would be normal. But good girls don’t write about drugs, single motherhood, and rage.” She speaks with a familiarity that appeals to a certain kind of reader; once begun, the book is difficult to put down.
I saw that the world was simply variation. One could add more. The blue-white of hillsides under snow, perhaps. But the basic elements differed only in arrangement. The combinations were preordained, defined and limited. I realized my life was also defined. The boundaries of my world were the canals on one side and the ocean on the other. Jason sat squarely in the center.
This was written at a time when the Women’s Movement was in full force, and organizations were flourishing — such as the Woman’s Building in Downtown Los Angeles, which Braverman was involved with. A comparison between mother, daughter, and grandmother, shows us what past generations of women have endured, and how it has shaped this family. In poetic letters to her cousin Rachel, Rose recounts the family history on the female side: from the hardships of leaving Poland for the United States, the illiteracy of their impoverished grandmother, leading to the forced adoption of their mothers, the foster homes, and eventual prostitution. Rose’s father married her mother as a teenager, where she was “hustling for dinners” on the streets of Greenwich Village. A narrative of three generations of Jewish women surfaces, and it becomes clear that trauma from the past has transferred onto Rose and her cousin in the form of depression; Rachel is in an institution and, as the title of the book suggests, is prescribed lithium.
The maternal relationship is strained. Rose’s mother is now a Beverly Hills divorcee turned businesswoman with high expectations, while Rose carries emotional baggage from a failed marriage to a psychotic intellectual in Berkeley, and a seven-year drug-fueled relationship with Jason. Jason lets her live in one of his houses, and lays down the rules: he paints, he cheats, she collects his rents, “and as long as he paints, she doesn’t exist.” In Euripides’s myth of Jason and the Argonauts, Medea is assigned masculine traits, which she uses to overcome her deception by Jason. In return for helping him secure the golden fleece, he marries her and they have two sons, but he later commits adultery with the king’s daughter Glauce. Medea reacts by killing their children. In the book, Rose escapes her torment by spending the nights with Jason shooting up and making love. There, time seems to stand still, and she moves in graceful dimensions. Braverman’s descriptions of the rush from the drugs are poetic excursions, dreamlike states and precarious hallucinations: “When I yawned, clouds stirred and birds fluttered from my lips, a migration of orange and purple butterflies.” After awakening from drugged sleep, Rose drives through the city to the hospital to see her sick father.
The commercial buildings along Venice Boulevard and the patches of lawn in front of small stucco houses stuck and forgotten between factory buildings and warehouses whirled and spun red. Red cannas waved arms, red arms like a man on flame. A lemon tree pushed blooms, blooms like poisoned tongues. The sun stalled, a pus yellow and hot, hot enough to make a sane man hang himself.
These trips are both homage and a cruel ode to Los Angeles; seductive and dangerous, unearthing the juxtapositions inherent in the city, and doing it beautifully. Here, mixed feelings about the City of Angels translate not only into depictions of a young woman coping with adulthood, the men in her life, and survival, but also the city itself. In Braverman’s novels, Los Angeles receives a darker, more cynical review than Eve Babitz or even Joan Didion gave it (the latter reviewed Lithium favorably when it was published). Her characters are plagued by displacement and isolation, in turn uncovering its superficiality and an unstable quality:
I realized that Los Angeles is a rented city. It was born fully formed from the daydreams and wet dreams of greedy little men pushing celluloid fantasies. Los Angeles is a Monopoly board with orange trees. There is danger, too distant to be a factor. Earthquakes last only seconds. It is too much to hope for.
These impressions are a result of the changes she witnessed since the late ’50s, from her childhood in Hawthorne to a bohemian life in Venice Beach, and then onto the Eastside barrio, where she raised her daughter and spoke only Spanish for many years.
[H]ere, at the edge of a city park with its standard-issue miniature lake surrounded by deformed palms, here, at this intersection of accident and happenstance where the contrived grandeur of the office buildings and the municipal halls suddenly stops. It is a lazy city, eating its way outward slowly, she realizes, like a beast fat enough to be selective. Yes, a creature utterly assured and absolutely corrupt.
In the book that recounts impressions of her time living in Echo Park as an adult and single mother, Palm Latitudes (1988), the sentiment of contradiction is most intentional. Despite passages that come off as somewhat disdainful, they are expressed so powerfully that anyone who lives in and loves the city would have to forgive the author for it. The character Gloria observes: “My eyes ached as I looked at their house. It was an exposed nerve, raw, in visible agony. Their yard was a ruin. Bougainvillea thrashed the wall of their courtyard like a cancer eating a throat.” Further, they also encapsulate what it feels like when gazing from atop a hillside at the skyline below onto Downtown Los Angeles. This became her most ambitious and literary novel to date — the experience of living on the Eastside when it was predominantly Latino and while enmeshed in women’s struggles, fused into three strong female characters Francisca, Gloria, and Marta. Braverman gives us more than a taste of her ambivalence of Los Angeles: “Always a palm rises and shines greened, glistening after rain. Always beggars squint into a malicious sun, in the archetypal plaza, where their wounds are nests for insects.”
Thankfully, Kate Braverman’s writing lacks illusory happy endings or the professing of love as a catchall answer. Her subjects’ happiness are never solely dependent on men, but rather on the entirety of their lives, on their power, ambitions, and independence. The writer Kathy Acker concluded about her upbringing in 1993: “Even if there was work for a female minor, my parents, my educators, and my society had taught me I was powerless and needed either parents or a man to survive,” something she rebelled against through her writing and sexuality. Braverman was equally aware of her position as a female author and has stated, “In my relentless attack on the male dominion of literature, which consigns female characters to be teachers, wives and nurses, I am obsessed with gaining entry to their citadel. I am a guerilla fighter and I don’t accept the Geneva Code.”
Much like Acker’s, Braverman’s life may seem unconventional to some: cocaine addiction from the ’70s to the mid-’80s, and heroin in the ’90s, periods in the barrio and a hut in Hawaii, as well as her mother’s home in Beverly Hills, upstate New York, and San Francisco. Educated at Berkeley, she taught intensive writing at the Woman’s Building, UCLA Writers’ Program, and gave workshops attended by Janet Fitch. Initially publishing under the initials K. E. Braverman to hide her gender, she later revealed herself as Kate.
The debut Lithium for Medea possesses a haunting, freeing voice — Braverman’s style of fusing highly visceral poetic language with analytic and philosophical prose is both exquisite and powerful, especially when told from the position of a young woman trying to find her way out of damaging patterns. Fighting her inner demons, she musters the energy to stand by her dying father, accompanied by the presence and stench of death in the hospital corridors. There is a reckoning with her mother and a painful goodbye when he leaves the hospital, having beat the cancer. In reality, Braverman’s father committed suicide in 1979, as the book was published, and this fact looms over the paternal relationship, which is at times heartbreaking. In the myth of Jason, Medea goes against her family to help him achieve his quest for power of the throne, and then seeks revenge when he crosses her. In Christa Wolf’s rendition of Medea from 1996, she draws on earlier versions of the myth to portray Medea as willful and independent, contrasting what she sees as tragedies wrongfully altered by the patriarchal climate over time. In Lithium, Rose strangles Jason’s cat Picasso but later abandons her bad habits, leaving both Jason and her parents. Rather than retaliate, she heads to Arizona, crossing the plains of brush and Joshua trees into a resplendent freedom, more extravagant than her drug experiences ever were. Key here is the journey of rebirth, and Rose starts anew in the desert.
I am streaking through Victorville and I am crazy. I am red driving into walls of red, daze of red. I am Rose. There was struggle, disgrace, failure. I will shed this. I am windborne into airtight crosshatch of coming night, into big feet and drumbeat. Boom! Boom! I will go mad, then, but keep going. I will shed all I have ever known for what is not, what may never. And the sunswirl is behind me. Savage spent hideous sunsore of greed and ruin, Los Angeles most damned. I will shed this. Seventy-three miles from Barstow, last outpost. I won’t stop the car. The road is mine. I will let it tumble from my lips. I will have cymbals and drums.
For some, Los Angeles may represent a place where one goes to be free from metropolitan confines and bourgeois European ideals of work and social life; Braverman however, explains her need to get away from a life that involved alienation and cultural isolation. She describes her notion of being an Angeleno woman, a specific type in itself, to one that leaves the city to self-realize further still. In Lithium for Medea, the protagonist travels to the Mojave Desert, and in the semi-memoir Frantic Transmissions to and from Los Angeles (2006), the L.A. woman moves into the 21st century. She has evolved from the Laurel and Topanga Canyons, the artists’ lofts Downtown, Echo Park and Pasadena, as well as from the ocean in Venice. Now thanks to technology, she can choose where she wants to be: “she might spend her birthday in Prague, Kathmandu, or Bali.” Compared to an East Coast or European lifestyle, the L.A. woman has an array of alternatives for living in just one place, but for Braverman, it was not enough. She explains this was due to a combination of “cultural lack” at the time she still lived here. There was the corporate rebuilding of the city in the 1990s, and the violent conditions culminating in the riots of ’92, caused by the class and racial segregation. All of these issues resulted in her decampment to upstate New York and later San Francisco, where she was met with a then larger and more accepting literary circle.
I decode my address book. This is what it says. Los Angeles did not fail the L.A. Woman. Rather, it prepared her to respond to the ravishment of color and texture, the intoxication of fragrances, of night vines imported from Brazil and Africa opening infant white mouths above curbs and alleys. And somewhere along the line she just graduated, turned forty-something, and realized that for the first time, cities are optional for females. My address book is a directory of women living alone, at extreme edges of the map, looking out at mountains, mesas, and rivers, knowing they’re not afraid.
These revelations from Frantic Transmissions are not unique, as female artists and writers have abandoned cities for the West and Southwest in the past. Georgia O’Keeffe in Texas and New Mexico and Leonora Carrington in Mexico are but two examples. Braverman describes a friend who left a law firm in her mid-40s to live in Santa Cruz to paint, another has moved to a mesa near Taos to build a home and art studio. “Why not begin an entire other career at forty-five, discover a discrete geography within, a further kingdom demanding to be externalized?” The freedom to alter one’s course of direction is connected to the problem of patriarchy: “We share the unprecedented freedom to express ourselves outside patriarchal borders. The patriarchy has set the perimeters of human perception, […] philosophy and art,” and should be recognized as a viable alternative. “The patriarchy established and maintained the hierarchies of thought and behaviour so long, it seems a natural feature, like the Rocky Mountains or Pacific Ocean, that which has always been. But all geographies are subject to change.”
That my address book is largely comprised of women without traditional families or the occupations they began their careers with is not a negative reflection on Los Angeles. In fact it’s the opposite. Los Angeles, so exorbitantly experimental, with her end-of-the-trail rough-hewn pragmatism, fascination with originality, and uncompromising recognition of aesthetics as a primary character, has birthed unique females for a radically postmodern, post-urban arena.
Rebirth and the concept of women experimenting with a radical, postmodern life, exists in sharp contrast to those who have come to Los Angeles for a century to make it in the movies. Even today, they arrive from small towns, frequently underage. If these women succeed, one might see them on the red carpet outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre; if not, they face an array of mediocre or even tragic endings. As Braverman writes, “If you find the right soda fountain, shoes, or hairstyle, rebirth is possible. They’ll buy you new teeth and erase your accent.” Using Marilyn Monroe as the collective voice of Los Angeles in Frantic Transmissions, through a fictitious interview with the actress she asks: “What’s your secret? The divinity of accident. You take a bus to Hollywood and become a star. Anyone can do this. You don’t have to be a countess or go to Stanford. […] The cinema teaches you. Then you get money. […] Ask Brittany and Chelsea, Jasmine and Jade.” This cycle has not changed much in a hundred years, although the film industry itself has since been rebranded as “entertainment.” Women are still taught that in order to assert themselves they must use their physical and material qualities foremost, which count more than their art or intellect. Attaining financial success is the absolute priority, and, in today’s world, linked to feminism when achieved. In her book, Braverman explains the social and architectural construction of Los Angeles that facilitated the need to accommodate this certain type of person — the star:
They were constructing freeways and shopping malls with eight layers of underground parking and lobbies with atriums and fountains. Your parents thought they were being built for them. But the city being born was a kingdom of starlets in bikinis with backyard tennis courts and swimming pools, gardeners, chauffeurs. We were incidental to the process. We were refugees from an internal undeclared war that no one wanted. I’ll tell you what we are. We’re slippage. Hawthorne’s dark forest, forget it.
The social complexities Braverman experienced growing up over three decades are often erased from literature on the city, which tends to focus on Hollywood. The tensions culminating in extreme violence in the early 1990s are not as often addressed; however the Latino, Asian, and black population have molded L.A. just as much into what it is. Although conditions have shifted somewhat over the years, Los Angeles is still very much economically separated and racially segregated, which is what the author tried to convey through Palm Latitudes, stating in the Los Angeles Times in 1988: “These [immigrants] are people who are impoverished, who are away from their homes and families. These are people who are frightened … depressed … in the midst of trauma. And … when the heat would come up and people would be outside and in the streets … there was this pervasive sense of misery.” Braverman had left the Westside due to rising crime and discovered the feeling of living in a “different city” in Echo Park. Criticized by some for portraying Latina culture as a Jewish woman, she felt it was her duty to emphasize this angle, necessary to show that Los Angeles was Latino from its core, beginning with its geographical and political history, its name, its architecture and streets.
Not deterred by this criticism, it is as Medea speaks in Wolf’s book: “as far as they’re concerned, a woman is wild if she has a mind of her own.” Tying racial disparity, poverty, immigration, and the female experience into one another, apart from her literary and poetic achievement, Kate Braverman also comes up with a critical feat in the process. Through her unique genealogy, she manages to encompass the complex, intangible experience of Los Angeles that outsiders perhaps cannot grasp, and all from a feminist perspective: “It’s not a city where rules are written in stone. The regulations are inscribed in a pastel script, containing a sense of sea waves, unusual punctuations and dialects.”