Ellen Bass

“We have seen through the centuries, legislating anybody’s sexual desire is bound to fail.”

Interviewed by Judy Waxman, January 2022

EB:  My full name is Ellen Bass. I was born in Philadelphia on June 16th, 1947.

JW:  Let’s hear a little about your childhood and the parts of it that led you to be the person you became.

EB:  My father came as a very small child from Russia with his mother and a sibling, other siblings came separately as you’re familiar, that was the want in those days, and his family settled in the Philadelphia area. My mother was born in Philadelphia, but her mother came from Lithuania before that, when she was a child. I’m in between first and second generation.

Many things led up to many things, but there’s a history, a lineage of very strong women in my family. My grandmother’s husband left her when my mother was 13. She was the oldest of five children. My grandmother raised five children, mostly herself, through a series of creative businesses. They were very poor, but my grandmother managed to continue to pull it all together, and she sent four out of five of the children onto higher education. The fifth didn’t want that, so she set him up in business. My grandmother was legendary in our family. I had the good fortune to live in the same town with her.

When I was a year and a half, my parents moved from Philadelphia to Pleasantville, which is a tiny town outside of Atlantic City. My grandmother lived there as well. She lived with us for a couple of years, and then she lived just a few blocks away. She was a very big part of my life until I was in my very late teens, and then she died. My mother and the other children in the family never stopped telling stories about my grandmother. I had this mythic figure, but who was very down to earth because she took care of me and she was there for me. I loved her. She was a wonderful grandmother.

My mother was also very strong. If you didn’t compare her to my grandmother, she would be extraordinary, too. No one could compete with my grandmother. But my father had a lot of serious illness. Early on, my mother and he talked about how they were going to manage work life. It seemed to my mother clear, and my father was very happy about this, that they would run a business together. My father actually was a high school English teacher, and my mother was a registered nurse. But my father was not suited for high school English teaching.

My mother and he bought a liquor store in Pleasantville, New Jersey, and they ran that together. I always saw my mother very capable, an extremely capable person. She was very even keeled. My father was anxious and in a lot of pain, and she’s the one who really just kept everything afloat. They both worked very long hours in New Jersey. Liquor stores can be open 13 hours a day, six days a week. And so those were the hours, and we lived in an apartment over the store.

There are a couple of things that come to my mind. It’s really interesting, I thought I had nothing to say about my childhood until you asked me one question. All of a sudden, I realized there’s quite a lot to say about it in terms of influence. When I was a small child, my mother would drive me to school in the morning before she went to work. One day it was very snowy, and she got the shovel and dug the car out from the snow. I said to her, “Mommy, what would a delicate woman do?” She said, “Oh, she would just stand there, and look around, and catch the eye of some man who was driving by, and he would dig out the car.”

JW:  When did you learn about the women’s movement?

EB:  I’m not sure exactly when I learned about the women’s movement. I think I slid into the women’s movement. When I was in college, the first year, one of my teachers was Florence Howe. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Florence, but she is known as the Mother of Women’s Studies. She was president of the MLA for a number of years. She was co-founder of the Feminist Press, which is the longest running women’s press in the world. Celebrated, I think, 51 years last year.

She had been down in Mississippi for the Freedom Summer. When she came back, she had absorbed these new ways of teaching that were about open, not closed questions, and having the students be a part of their education and choosing curriculum, and the teacher has as much to learn as the student, and all kinds of collaborative learning. She was a huge influence on me in college. In my senior year, I participated in a pilot program with her where college students taught poetry to high school students. None of this was necessarily specifically the women’s movement, but it was all steeped in these concerns.

I graduated. I worked for a year, and then I went back to school for what was then called an MA, now would be called an MFA, at Boston University. Florence came to visit me one day, and she thought that I was depressed. She had had some suicides in her very close family and friends, and it scared her. I really wasn’t depressed. I had a boyfriend that I wasn’t getting along very well with, and some other things weren’t going perfectly, but I wasn’t really depressed. But it was very fortuitous that she thought I was, because Florence’s cure for anything was work. I learned that from her.

She asked me if I would like to collaborate with her on an anthology of poems about women. We started to work together. It was a dream come true. The result, several years later, was No More Masks, which was the first major anthology of women’s poetry and made available for the first time lots of poems by women, both for classrooms and also many women of a certain age. Men actually talked to me about how transformative it was to finally have access to women’s poetry. There was relatively so little women’s poetry published then that I was able to read about 99% of all the poems published by women in the 20th century up to 1973.

JW:  Oh, my gosh.

EB:  It just gives you a sense of what has happened, fortunately, in the last years. My publisher is Copper Canyon Press, a small poetry publisher. The editor there, my editor, Michael Wiegers, decided to become an editor because when he was in college, he was introduced to No More Masks.

JW:  Tell me what No More Masks means.

EB:  It’s from Muriel Rukeyser, “No more masks! No more mythologies!” Let me just get the whole quote. It’s from a poem called The Poem As Mask. I might as well just read it into the record because it is such a seminal poem.

The Poem as Mask, and this is Orpheus speaking. “When I wrote of the women in their dances and wildness, it was a mask. On their mountain, god-hunting, singing in orgy, it was a mask. When I wrote of the god fragmented, exiled from himself, his life, the love gone down with song, it was myself split open, unable to speak and exile from myself. There is no mountain, there is no god, there is memory of my torn life, myself split open in sleep, the rescued child beside me among the doctors, and a word of rescue from the great eyes. No more masks! No more mythologies! Now for the first time, the god lifts his hand, the fragments join in me with their own music.”

Muriel Rukeyser was alive at the time that we were editing the anthology and she gave us that poem and some others. We begged many of the poets for new poems because permissions are so astronomical when you’re doing a big anthology. Florence knew everyone, so she could contact these people directly. She would ask me to contact them directly. She really knew every major woman writer alive at the time. She was at the hub. Everybody passed through her. Grace Paley, and Tillie Olsen, and Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, all of our great women writers of that era were connected to Florence.

That was my introduction to the women’s movement. It wasn’t through being part of any organization, but really working with Florence. Simultaneously at that time, I was working in Boston at an organization called Project Place that was a youth-run group that worked with youth as well. We worked with runaways. That was a big concern at that time. We did drug counseling and went out when people OD’d on drugs and tried to help them or get them to help.

We did a lot of other things in the south end of Boston. That was when I was in my first women’s consciousness raising group. Because the women in that organization felt that we were not being part of the decision-making process in the way that the men were. No surprise that we were not being taken as seriously. We started this as a work organization, but it quickly was both work and life. It was, I think, just a typical, early ’70s, women’s consciousness raising group.

JW:  But you did then, I assume, help make changes in the work area. Is that right?

EB:  I think we made some. I’m not sure that we were fantastically successful at it, but we certainly did keep raising the issues. I think that we were heard, actually. As I think back about it, we were heard. We wound up getting more women on the board of the organization and in more positions of power.

JW:  What did you go on to do after that?

EB:  After that, I moved to California, and I taught writing workshops, freelance. I was married for a while. I had a child. It was a very bad marriage. We got divorced. I was raising my child, and I decided to come out as a lesbian. I was really tired of the gender dynamics in my marriage and gender dynamics in general. We hear this a lot now, but at the time, it was very rare for someone to say that they had a choice, and they made their choice in terms of sexual orientation. There was a long period where everyone was saying, “We can’t help it. This is who we are. Don’t judge us because it’s not our fault or even our decision.”

Well, it was my decision. Sexually and romantically, I loved men, but I really didn’t like the dynamics. I felt like I had spent a lot of years trying to have a healthy relationship with a man that lasted, and that was satisfying to me, and that I was just going to try it with women. At that time, all of my energy, other than my sexual romantic energy, was going toward women anyway. Everything I was reading was by women. All the ideas that excited me were women’s ideas. I was reading again Adrienne, and Audre Lorde, and Mary Daly, and Susan Griffin. I was excited by everything that women were writing.

Most of what I was teaching were groups of women in writing workshops. I was very excited by what I was hearing them write. I just felt like my life was revolving around women and that I would have a better chance at domestic happiness if I were with a woman. It just so happened that I really was in love with a good friend. We had been friends for almost 10 years, and I had always had very tender feelings towards her. We wound up forming a romantic and sexual relationship and living together.

At the time when we started living together, my daughter was four. Then when my daughter was nine, we had a second child who she gave birth to, a son. We raised our children and they’re now grown. Raising a lesbian family when we did, which was the very early ’80s and through the ’80s, was really different than now. It was very hard on our children in many ways and of course that made it very hard on us. Even in Santa Cruz, which is probably one of the easiest places, it was still quite hard. But our children survived, as did we, and it’s beautiful to see, essential that we see that the times are changing around that. It was very interesting.

Just a couple of weeks ago, my wife volunteers for an organization that collects food that restaurants and stores can’t sell because it’s getting near the due date or they want to get rid of it and she distributes it to service workers who are not making very much money and need it. She goes once a week, and she picks up in her little blue truck, very old, but still running very well, alone, and I went with her this time.

This young man at the end when we got all the food said, “Oh, it’s nice to meet you because Janet’s here all the time.” I said, “It was nice to meet you too.” He said, “I hope I’m not saying this wrong. I hope you won’t take offense, but thank you. Thank you for being a pioneer.” I thought, “What is he talking about?” He said, “Raising your family back when it was hard.” It was such a sweet thing. We said, “You’re welcome.”

I thought just out of the blue, this young man who’s busy just lifting crates of produce and packages of meat just took that moment. It was so special. In many ways, I’m a very public figure, and so I’m not short on appreciation, and I appreciate the appreciation. But it’s not that common that just somebody, almost on the street, just walks up and says, “It must have been hard and thank you.”

JW:  What city do you raise your children in?

EB:  Santa Cruz.

JW:  I have friends in a similar situation in Oakland, and I guess it might have been a little easier there.

EB:  Is that possible? A lot is where you happen to be, what school you happen to be at, a lot of factors, I think are into it. It’s funny because our daughter came out as a lesbian when she was in high school. That was very, very difficult for her. But she is an extremely outspoken person, and so no matter what, no one was going to tell her what she could say and not say, but it was very hard.

Our son was so little, and he watched that and he went in the other direction like, “I’m not going to let anyone know I have lesbian parents.” That was very hard in that way. But then once he was a young man, it turned out that everything about our family that was diverse was an asset in applying for internships and jobs. He’s also bi-racial. He was just like a shoe-in for everything. He fit all the demographics that he wanted to put into. I said, “Look honey, you paid the price for it, you suffered for it as a child, and you don’t have to hold back on it. You just use it.”

JW:  That’s great. I have another political question about that, because I’ve interviewed some women who, I guess in the ’70s said, as you did, that being a lesbian was a choice. I just wondered what comments you would have on that?

EB:  Well, obviously, that wasn’t going to be a very popular decree. Of course, I understand the theory that women should stop putting their energy into men. But as we have seen through the centuries, legislating anybody’s sexual desire is bound to fail. It was a doomed idea from the start. Also, we had the experience of having a boy. As soon as our son was born, we immediately realized that we had to make changes in our life. For example, we had gone to the West Coast Women’s Music Festival that was women only, and you could have boy children until the age of, I think, seven.

Well, we went once when Max, our son, was a year old. Then we looked at each other and said, “Well, that’s that, because we’re not going to get to where he’s seven and say, ‘You’ve been coming and you can’t come.’ We’re also not going to be in an environment where boys are treated as in any way inferior.” We also said to all of our friends, we have a lot of women friends, we have men friends too, but more women friends and some lesbian friends. We said, “No more. He’s too young to talk yet, but let’s start right now. No male bashing of any kind. Nothing ever in the house.” You can say you’re mad at a particular man for a particular thing, but none of this “women versus men.” We’re very strict about it.

JW:  Let’s talk about what ways did you continue professionally working on women’s issues? What can you tell me about that?

EB:  The first thing is that I was teaching with writing groups and little workshops in my living room and other people’s living rooms, sitting a circle on the floor. They were called Writing About Our Lives. This also was from Muriel Rukeyser. Her line, “What if one woman told the truth about her life, the world would split open.” That was on my little flyer that I would take and get xeroxed. This was before, of course, all of our electronics, and put up all over town. Women would come, and we would have these writing workshops. What was very exciting to all of us was actually hearing the truth of our lives. Women were writing things that had never before been said, or we had never read.

That was thrilling, and exciting, and also horrifying, and stunning, because one of the things fairly early on that women began writing about once they could speak completely frankly, was being sexually abused as children. The first woman who wrote about that, I remember it vividly, and I write about it in the introduction to a couple of the books that I’ve written since then. After the class was over, she had this crumpled, folded piece of paper in her jeans pocket, and she pulled it out, and she asked me to read it. I read it, and I had no idea what she was saying. It was so obtuse. But I knew it was important, and I said, “It’s really good that you’re writing. I really appreciate you’re showing it to me. Write some more and bring it back next week.”

We did that for a few weeks before I understood what it was that she was saying, before she could actually get it out enough for me to hear it. I was not abused as a child, sexually, or any other way. I didn’t know this happened. I didn’t even know it was a thing. I didn’t know this ever happened to anybody in the world. I was stunned. The great psychologist Carl Rogers said whenever he’s worked through an issue in his own life, it’s as though someone sends a telegram to all of his clients to tell them they can now bring that issue to him.

This wasn’t exactly working it through in my own life, but as soon as the first woman told me, it was as though I had some pheromone that I was giving out that told women that they could tell me about their abuse. In other workshops and other places, they just started writing about their abuse. I didn’t do what they were writing about, and this went on for some time. Finally, the women in one of these workshops and I, several of us got together, and we edited an anthology called I Never Told Anyone of women’s stories.

We did a national call for stories and poems, and Harper and Row published that. I thought that that was then my contribution, and that was that, and I just go back to my other work. But it didn’t go that way. Once you publish a book, whether you know a lot about the subject or not, people think that you do. I started having a lot of women come to me and ask me questions about abuse and about healing, and about what they should do, and about how they’re going to cope, and how they’re going to get better, and all of this.

I was talking to a lot of women at this point, and I decided that I would offer some workshops using writing as a healing tool rather than to make a literature, just as a healing tool, and it would be focused for women who were abused as children. This was right around when I was getting divorced, and I was thinking that I did need to think about that. My husband had two advanced degrees from Harvard, but I wound up being the main breadwinner in the family through my little workshops. But I always felt like there was a fallback, if we ever needed him to, if we’re ever desperate, that he actually could do more work.

But I decided to start, in addition to just regular writing workshops, having these workshops for survivors of child sexual abuse. In these workshops, I basically said, “I am not an expert here. I know about how to help you write, but I am not an expert, and very little is known about this. If you want to do this, it’s going to be a collaborative process where we try things, and you keep telling me what works, what doesn’t work. What I can tell you is that I will continue to pass on what we learn here. Even if we’re stumbling around in the dark, it will continue to help women down the road, and that what you learn, and your experience is going to be helpful to others down the line.”

The women were very generous in their sharing of everything, and were also very generous toward me for knowing so little, and very forgiving. The one thing that really was terrific about having been married to my husband is that he had a PhD in psychology and had studied with Carl Rogers and really knew a lot about how to work with people. He demystified that process for me. This is an oversimplification, but basically, telling me that it really wasn’t about what they teach you in school. It’s really about the authenticity and respect in the relationship. Carl Rogers was the leader of person-centered psychology in that way.

I had a lot of confidence. I’ve always been overconfident. Maybe I shouldn’t say overconfident. I’ve always been extremely confident in my work life, other than writing poems, which I don’t know how I could ever be confident when I sit down to write a poem. But in my work with people and just stepping out into the public world, sometimes I’ve been overconfident, sometimes just very competent. But I had the chutzpah to just start to do this work, this very deep work with extreme trauma and abuse, a lot of it. I learned so much.

The more I did, the more women kept calling. I’d just be on the phone for my whole life calling from other countries. I didn’t want to write a book. I really didn’t want to. I knew how much work it would be. I knew it would just eat me up for years. I kept saying no whenever I had the opportunity. Harper wanted me to write another book. Then a friend, Laura Davis, who had been my writing student long ago, before that, approached me. She was struggling with having been abused as a child, and she approached me and asked me if I would co-write it with her.

Laura is an extremely disciplined, hardworking, capable writer. I felt like, “Well, if I’m going to do it with anybody, Laura would be the person to do it with.” I said yes. For the next few years, we wrote this 500-page book, The Courage to Heal, that was a guide for women survivors of child sexual abuse. We never expected it to reach so many people, because the anthology, I never told anyone, just had very modest sales. As a poet, you’re happy if 10,000 people buy your book, that’s like a miracle. But The Courage to Heal sold over a million copies and was translated into 12 languages. We did several editions over the years, including a 20th anniversary edition in 2008. That was the most gratifying and important work, I think, I will have done in my life.

JW:  This is mostly stories in the book?

EB:  The Courage to Heal is actually a guidebook. It has a lot of stories. But it basically says, “You’re not alone, you’re not to blame, and healing is possible.” Then it takes you through what it’s going to take to heal, the stages of healing, and what you’re going to need to do, or what other women have done that help them. Laura spent a year doing interviews with women, and I had a number of years’ experience working in these workshops with women. We combined those interviews.

What we did first that felt very important was we compared what she learned with women who had not worked with me with what I learned with the women who did work with me, because I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t this important variable; that, yes, this happened when I worked with women in the workshops, but maybe it’s not like that when they’re not with me in the workshops. It matched up. Of course, there’s a huge variety, and that’s why the book is 500 pages is because, yes, there is a map, but your road is going to be individual. We wanted to make sure that we talked about a huge array of ways in which people were abused, the demographics were very wide in terms of age, and culture, and race, and ethnicity.

JW:  Income, too?

EB:  Yes.

JW:  I think there’s an assumption this is just low-income people.

EB:  Exactly. We had women who came from very poor families. We had a couple of women who came from, not just the 1%, but the 1% of the 1%, and all across the board of everything. We had a lot of stories. We had a map. Then after the book came out, for a couple of years, I did a lot of education and lecturing all over the country to doctors, nurses, mental health professionals, teachers, everywhere, and therapists, of course, psychiatrists, and psychologists. It was a very powerful experience. At that point, I had been ill. I had gotten Lyme disease. I had been very ill for a year, and I did recover. I just felt like I needed to make a big change. My family and I went to Europe for six months and just left everything. When I came back, in the interim, there was a very significant backlash against survivors questioning the validity of their memories.

JW:  What year was this?

EB:  This is around very early ’90s. Like ’91-ish. I really was ready to be done with this work, but I didn’t think I could step out at this juncture and leave all these survivors who had entrusted me with so much and just disappear. Laura was pregnant and felt that she really couldn’t do much, that she was just too vulnerable. For a couple of years, I was on every major talk show, interviewed by every major and almost every minor newspaper and magazine in the country. It was a full-time job for which there was no pay, speaking truth to these people who were a pretty nefarious sort.

They had pulled together this organization called the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, which was a completely bogus organization. Their leaders had, we did a lot of research, they had written papers in favor of child sex, adult sex with children. There were lawyers who were making megabucks defending these people. They really didn’t get worked up until survivors started bringing civil suits against them for damages. At that point, they got really worked up. They got their lawyers in place and they still pop up now and then. They’re still on the Internet.

They co-opted The Courage to Heal with a pedo site, and if you look at it, you see. It just wasn’t worth fighting with them over that site. It was like, “Take it, it’s yours. Say whatever horrible things you want to say about us.” They’re still active to some extent, but they have been completely dismissed by everybody who is really reputable in the field. But the media had a heyday, and they just loved this.

That was a real education for me. I had always thought I was a good communicator, and I realized that you can be a good communicator, but if the people that you’re talking to have another agenda, like the media, and their agenda, of course, is to make things exciting and adversarial, if they have another agenda, it doesn’t matter. There were people who came out from Frontline and places like that, which was a big news TV thing at the time, and spent three days in Santa Cruz in my house and meeting my family and interviewing me, and we fed them and everything else, and they still trashed us when they did the show. Oprah trashed us. “Yeah, uh-huh, uh-huh”. No one in the media, no one really came out saying that what we were doing was unequivocally valuable.

JW:  Do you think the more recent #MeToo movement has given all of what you’re talking about validity?

EB:  Oh, yes. I think the #MeToo movement is really making very good progress. We don’t like to see the places where it still needs so much work, but I think it’s really good. Like everything, I don’t think the #MeToo movement is that aware of what came before. The survivor movement, the survivor of child sexual abuse movement was built on the back of the domestic violence shelters and movement and the rape crisis centers and movement, and we were really aware of that and very vocal about it. But the time is really different now and everything is going way faster. I don’t think the #MeToo movement ever gives a nod to whatever came before, which hopefully is okay. Hopefully, it’s just going to do okay anyway. But yes, one movement, as we know, you and I, leads to the next.

JW:  Partly, that’s why we’re doing these interviews, but also, I know some of these activists, and we’ll send them your interview. Make sure they at least get a little dose.

EB:  I think it would be strengthening for them to know that we were doing that and that we’re so thrilled with what they’re doing. We didn’t want to do this, and then that’s the end of it. We wanted these young women to carry the torch.

JW:  Right, and also to appreciate the backlash that you got and they are certain to get as well.

EB:  Yes, and what goes hand in hand with my confidence about being able to do things, even things I can’t do, is a certain naivete that I maybe have finally shaken, but maybe not. I’m not sure. But it just completely shocked me. We were sued a great deal during that time, too. We had three major lawsuits, all of which were thrown out, but were costly. But the great part of that is that survivors rallied and raised more money than we needed to fight these lawsuits. We got literally huge mail bags full of mail with women sending us sometimes a check for $50 or $100, but often $5 or $2 or $10 and letters of support.

I have never felt less alone in any endeavor. Laura and I had about two or three weeks when we started getting sued, where we really got scared. Immediately, we organized a defense committee of some of the women that we knew well, and they took over. They wrote all the copy for everything. They wrote the letter. They just did everything for us. They were so great. When I would go out there on my own in my little flowered dress, which I always thought was the best thing to wear, coming up against these mean people, I just felt like I might be the head of the triangle, but that I had all of the support behind me, I never felt like I was alone. As soon as that started to happen, we just relaxed.

JW:  I had another question on a different track, in that you had mentioned your wife, and so I wondered if that meant at some point you got married.

EB:  We did. We got married. When California first allowed gay marriage, we didn’t get married. I think we were still a little bit ambivalent about marriage, the institution of marriage. We had been together so long, we had children, and we were “married.” Whether we wanted to get married, we were a little bit ambivalent. We were also very busy, and we just didn’t get around to it. Then it was gone, and we said, “Okay.” If you had gotten married in California, you could stay married, but if you hadn’t, you couldn’t get married anymore.

We said, “Okay, when it comes around again, we’re going to do it.” Our first thought was we’re going to do it because it’s a historic thing, and we wanted to be part of history. We just wanted to be part of history. It was so funny because we were talking to friends of ours, another lesbian couple, and we said, “We don’t really know if we want to bother to get married.” And they said, “Well, it’s going to mean so much to your children.” We looked at each other and we thought, “Well, I guess we had better check it out with our children. Maybe we really will.” We asked our daughter and she said, “Well, I don’t really care, Mom.” We asked our son and he said, “Does it cost?” But we decided we really wanted to do it and we did it. We got married.

We didn’t have time to plan the wedding, but we got married just at City Hall. Our kids were with us. We all had such a good time. Then we had a wedding a year later, and we were really surprised at how important it was to us to have the wedding. Not so much the certificate, but the wedding. We had a pretty big wedding on the lawn of some friends, a beautiful site overlooking the ocean, and great food, and great wine, and dancing, and the whole thing.

We just loved it so much, and we loved the whole preparation. We liked picking out the silverware that was going to be on the table, and the cake, and for a whole year, part of our focus was on us. It had totally surprised us what a lovely thing that was to just be thinking about our wedding all that time and paying so much attention to each other around it. When the wedding was over and we were going home, we were both so disappointed it was over. It was like, “Oh, it just went by way too fast. We really wish we could do it all over again tomorrow.” We just loved the whole thing, and it surprised us a lot that we did.

JW:  Did it feel different in your relationship to have the piece of paper?

EB:  The paper didn’t, but that year of planning did. The year of planning, really, because it just kept giving us an opportunity to think about how devoted we were to each other, how in love we were with each other, how much we loved each other. It was just like if you just kept turning your attention to each other in this extremely sweet way for a year.

JW:  That’s lovely.

EB:  Yes. We just swam in closer.