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The artist and journalist talks to Stephanie Sy about journalism, her artwork and her new memoir, ‘Drawing Blood.’
December 18, 20159:00AM ET
Stephanie Sy: You write in your memoir, "To draw was trouble and safety, adventure and freedom." So art was an outlet for you, not just a form of expression growing up?
Molly Crabapple: Oh, God. I mean, art saved my life. To me, art was my addiction. I think that I could be locked inside a room and I would draw all over the walls. I can't imagine life without art. I sometimes think that there's literally nothing else I could do on this earth but be an artist.
And it was an escape for you of sorts as well when you were a child? What were you escaping from?
I think, like many — like many kids, I had that sort of age dysmorphia thing where, in my head, I was ready for adventures and freedom. But, you know, out in the world, I had to ask permission to borrow a book from the library. But on paper, there I could live exactly as I pleased.
And you had sort of grown up around art because your mother was and is an illustrator.
My mother's an amazing illustrator. And I think it was a real advantage because so many kids, they think of art as something that, you know, you'll never make a living at, something very, very distant. And a lot of parents, you know, encourage that. But for me, I was, like, "No, my mom puts food on the table by drawing Cabbage Patch Kids. This is a totally legitimate, totally adult, totally prosaic way to make a living. I can do this."
So your memoir, "Drawing Blood," starts with a scene of you drawing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the man believed to have masterminded the 9/11 attacks. Why did you start there?
I was trying to think of this moment that summarized everything that's kind of paradoxical about art. I was sitting in this kangaroo court in Guantánamo Bay, drawing the man who probably murdered 2,000 of my neighbors. And while I was drawing him, I was breaking his face down into lines and angles. It sort of summed up everything that my art is about and everything that the book is about, which is taking something that's this moment that really shows the raw edges and raw horrors of the world and then combining that with the aesthetics.
I've been to many places where bad things were happening, for lack of a better word. But Guantánamo is our thing. I say ours — that's the American horror. It is the most American place in the world. It's a place where, when I went, they were force-feeding and torturing, really, dozens of men, while at the same time there was a cheerful gift shop that sold T-shirts that say, "It don't Gitmo better than this."
It was a place without irony, without self-reflection. A place where terrible crimes against humanity were done, with, you know, a chipper smile and a down home accent. And I think that that was why it struck me so deeply, even though … I've been, you know, to Azaz [in Syria], where city blocks were being flat bombed by the regime and where [the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant] was car bombing a garage near a refugee camp. But I think Guantánamo hit me so closely because it was something intrinsically related to being American.
‘I really do believe that people who spend their entire lives being, like, prototypical good boys and girls and working in offices and going to nice schools and being patted on the head by authority are the least interesting people in the world.’
One of the other standout lines — and there are so many in this memoir —opens Chapter 7 of your book. "Babies are cute so you don't kill them. Young artists must be arrogant so they don't kill themselves." Can you explain what you meant by that?
You get into art because you love art, because you love art that other people have done, because you love great art. But everyone is really bad at the start, or most people. I was, certainly. And so there are years, decades even, when the gulf between what you love and the gulf between what you are is so yawningly huge. And if you're not almost delusional arrogant, you would realize, "God, I'm never going to be like this person that got me into this."
And you would just either give up or, as I as I put it somewhat hyperbolically, kill yourself. And so you have to have that sort of delusional monomania to you. Sometimes I look at my work from in my early 20s, and I think, "How did I ever get a start in this profession? Who possibly would've hired me?"
You've done a lot in that time. And one of those things is you've worked, collaterally at least, in the sex business. You call it the naked girl business. And another huge chunk of your memoir deals with that time.
Well, a few things. First of all, I am way too dysfunctional to have an ordinary job. And I'm was also way too ill qualified. Despite what some people believe, the world is not filled with lucrative job offers for Fashion Institute of Technology dropouts. So I wanted something that would pay $100 an hour when I was 19. And so I worked as a really low-rent naked model for all sorts of rather hilarious places and some fun gigs.
I was in Low Rider. That was awesome. I got to pose next to an old car. I really liked that. But I also liked it because it was a trade that was a slightly outlaw trade, you know? And so much of women, so much of what our virtue is supposed to consist of is maintaining this sort of, like, pearly, innocent purity. I hated that idea. I hated it.
It was part of sort of that arc of transgression that started when you were 4 years old. I was curious because at some point, you changed your name. And I think it was in that period, you were Jennifer Caban, and you changed it to Molly Crabapple. So you also describe in a part of the book this sort of physical transformationAnd I wondered whether the nude work was also part of that sort of physical experimentation.
You know, it actually I never thought of it that way, but you're right, because I'd just broken up with my boyfriend … who I had been with, you know, since I was 15 years old, I guess. And I was 19 and living in New York. And I needed to get a job, obviously. And I think that it was just a time when there were so many changes in my life happening all at once.
It's interesting how you're able to sort of dig deeper into it, though, in your memoir. And you write, "I wanted to see if I could work in a field as fraught and as stigmatized as sex and emerge unscathed. That I wanted to burn off childhood." Did you emerge from that experience unscathed?
Who emerges from life unscathed? I think, though, that men, for instance, are always encouraged to go out into the world and get some wounds, right? So many men I've known have joined the military, even not to defend their country but because they wanted to have, you know, an adventure. So many men do all sorts of risky things, whereas with women, we're not encouraged to do that. We're never encouraged to test ourselves. Our unscathedness is considered our most valuable asset, and I hate that.
What was the outcome of that? Did you end up feeling like an empowered, strong woman who made that choice, or did you feel disempowered by it?
So I have to admit I hate the word "empowered." I feel like the word "empowered" is, like, the Zeno's paradox of words. Like, there's no power, and then there's power, and then you're, like, empowered, you know? I don't — I don't know what "empowered" means. The only thing I know I felt empowered by is … making $400 in four hours. I found that highly, highly empowering.
But in terms of my work, I loved it sometimes. I hated it other times. Sometimes it was just really physically awkward and kind of silly. Sometimes I liked the community of women around it, even if the work itself was something that I really, really could've taken or left. But it's something I'm very grateful that I did. I really do believe that people who spend their entire lives being, like, prototypical good boys and girls and working in offices and going to nice schools and being patted on the head by authority are the least interesting people in the world.
Did it affect your later work as a professional artist?
Positively or negatively?
I think very positively. I mean, it affected my reception slightly negatively at the start. But in terms of my actual work, which is the important thing, I mean, it taught me so much. Because once you've worked on the other side of your field … that's when you realize that there isn't, like, the foreign subject that you can just objectify and project things on. That's when you realize that, you know, we're all humans, we're all watching and we're all being watched. So I feel very grateful for that.
Some of what you write about in this book is very, very personal, including your abortion. And you had a really bad infection after the procedure. Did you debate whether or not to include that in the book? And why did you ultimately decide to?
I actually had written about my abortion before, in an essay for Vice. And of all the essays I've written, that was the one that I got the most positive and heartfelt feedback from. So many women wrote to me, women who had had abortions that were illegal wrote to me. Older women who had had to have the procedure, you know, by hack doctors pre–Roe v. Wade here wrote to me to thank me.
Young women who had had bad experiences. Young women who had OK experiences. Women who were about to have abortions. And the reason I wrote about it before and the reason I included it in my book was that 1 out of 3 American women has an abortion. And yet the only things that we see in the media are these … edge cases that people use as justification because they're uncomfortable with abortion.
Like, women have abortion because they're raped or women have abortion because the fetus is, you know, is severely, severely damaged. Or women have an abortion because they're 13 and don't know what sex is. Or also, on the other hand, you have the ridiculous right-wing argument that women have abortion as birth control. But there's very little talk about, you know —
Just ordinary women who have to make that decision.
Vast majority. And I felt, because of that, there's a lot of space for stigma and shame, even amongst people who consider themselves pro-choice. I knew that a lot of people admired me before, a lot of young women did. And I wanted to say, you know, "I had this. You're not stupid because you got pregnant accidentally. You're not stupid. There's nothing wrong with you for having this procedure if it's something that you want or need." And, you know, "Don't be hard on yourself."
‘I’ve been to many places where bad things were happening, for lack of a better word. But Guantánamo is our thing. I say ours – that’s the American horror. It is the most American place in the world.’
You write in the book, "Lying sick in that bed, my politics become personal. And indeed, in the memoir, there is sort of a shift. Was that a turning point for your work in that it then became more political?
My work didn't really become more political afterwards. It took me actually a little while to find that. But it was when I felt it, you know what I mean? Because I when I was protesting, for instance, against the Iraq War — I'm not Iraqi, I don't have family in Iraq, I didn't have family that was enlisting in the Army — it was something that, while I deeply, deeply believed the Iraq [invasion] was a crime against humanity, it did not personally affect my life. Whereas abortion politics was something that affected me in the most bodily possible way.