In Drawing Blood, Molly Crabapple depicts the arc of her career development: from young student without sufficient finances to attend the art school of her choice, to impoverished artist trying to get the attention of those who could make her a star, to emerging adult awakening to events on the larger world stage. Throughout, she shares her political and artistic development, all through the lens of class and gender.
Crabapple is a fascinating person, mesmerizing artist, and capable writer. Why only three stars?
For me, I think it’s her worldview. She writes largely of her life as a young person in America in the 2000s, and yet she has enormously internalized a sense of women’s worthlessness that is breathtaking and sad:
“We were young women, at a bad school, studying for a competitive, ill-paying industry. What did we have to interest people besides our looks?” [p.80]
Yes, she made money posing for artists and GWCs (guys with cameras) – far more than she could have made waiting tables or temping in one of NY’s gazillion office towers. But she had so much more to offer than her nakedness and youth. Her art would have taken a different form had she not become involved in the world of sex workers, strippers, and burlesque, but how sad that she didn’t think she had any other choices. Sad, because she writes of her own negative feelings and experiences with it. I would not be sad for her if she wrote about it as a sex-positive, exuberant, powerful part of her life. Again and again, she writes about being put down by the people she encountered in this part of her life.
I also found myself uncomfortable with her depictions of her relationships. Where is friendship and kindness? Where is her center? In friendship after friendship, Crabapple describes competition and jealousy. In her primary romantic relationship, which she characterizes as the love of her life, she (purposely or not) repeatedly depicts a power differential. Even after years together, she still refers to that art studio as “Fred’s” (not hers or theirs). She “begs” Fred to help her arrange her Shell Game works so she can look at them in their entirety. Even when describing Fred’s warmth in their shared adult bed, she writes “He’d grab me, pin me down, and push himself into me. Afterward, he fell back to sleep.” Presumably, this is consensual and there is love and pleasure for them both. But Crabapple has a passive and powerless way of speaking about sex and her own body, and it stays with her through this whole book.
“I burst into tears – not fear, but of humiliation. No matter how far I’d strained against the rules for women, I was right back in my body, this fuckable, vulnerable shell.
I would never have the right to travel or take up space. At best, I’d be tolerated by someone who’d demand sex as payment the second we were alone.” [p.47]
“When I thought of every proposition or threat that I got just walking down the street in my girl body, I decided I might as well get paid for the trouble.” [p. 88]
“Any strawberry picker will tell you that hard work is a road to nowhere.” [p.98]
“Most career breaks come this way. Talent is essential, but cash buys the opportunity for that talent to be discovered. To pretend otherwise is to spit in the face of every broke genius. I am good, but it was never just about being good. It was about getting noticed.” [p.99]
“. . . abortion was for stupid girls, teens who didn’t know how babies were made, not clever girls like me. This passivity is baked into the grammar: “impregnated,” “knocked up.” Yet no matter how free or clever I believed myself, there I was. Knocked up.” [p.110]
“I forced myself to comply. When the media reports that a suspect in custody was killed after resisting arrest, they never tell you how hard it is to assist passively with your own kidnapping. They never talk about the discipline it takes to submit.” [p. 289]
“Occupy Wall Street taught some middle-class white people what poor people and people of color already know: the law is a hostile and arbitrary thing. Speak loudly, stand in the wrong place, and you can end up on the wrong side of it.” [p.292]
This is a confessional book, but also showy. At some point, it began to feel like a put-on, like she was pretending to share the truth with readers but was really winking or snickering behind their backs. She writes for so long about ‘not being good enough’ – The same story over and over. Finally, with her experiences beginning with the Occupy Wall Street movement, Crabapple beings to show some maturity, perspective, and growth. I am eager to seek out her art and writings from that period.
Advertised as a work about a political artist, this book begins and ends with stories from her work interviewing and drawing at the Guantanamo Bay detention center. I wish that this section was longer and the other parts were truncated.
Also, the reproductions of her artworks were maddeningly small. A larger format book would have done her better justice.