An Interview with Cindy Ovenrack Crabb
An Interview with Cindy Ovenrack Crabb
For 15 years, Cindy Ovenrack Crabb’s hand-written and paste-up zine Doris has served as a much-needed reminder that the personal is political. She touches on concepts like anarchism, feminism, and community-building, weaving complex ideas into simple stories and drawings about herself, her family and friends, and everyday experiences. Reading Doris is always an educational experience, but feels more like a wise friend opening up to you rather than an authority talking at you. She explores her own struggles with abuse, incest, and depression with honesty and simplicity, in language that renders these difficult topics eminently relatable to her readers. And no matter what she’s writing about, she always seems to land on the side of hope.
Doris: An Anthology 1991-2001 was published by Microcosm last year. More recently, Crabb worked with a few others on a collaborative zine called Support, which seeks to advocate for survivors of sexual assault and abuse. She found it an extremely taxing project to work on, but felt politically obligated to do it, as she had identified a lack of effective tools for opening up discussions on consent and the subtle ways abuse and manipulation can happen, even in self-described radical movements.
Crabb has been involved in political organizing and activism throughout much of her life; she discovered anarchist politics when she moved from Minnesota to Vermont after high school, working for three years at the Institute for Social Ecology. After Vermont, she moved back to Minneapolis, in part to take care of her mom (who she says was both an alcoholic and going insane), and in part to be surrounded by a more vibrant and active radical political scene. It was in Minneapolis that she joined her first political collective, which was part of the Youth Greens (back when the Greens was still anarchist and believed in electoral politics only up to a city council level). She stayed in Minneapolis for about a year, overwhelmed with caretaking for her mother and constant political work, and then headed west to Portland. Not knowing a single person, she looked in the newspaper and saw an ad for a Food Not Bombs group that was starting, and became involved with them, living in a house that was in many ways communal—another new experience for her. She lived in the house for about a year, but left after having a falling out (“the politics of the house just became totally ridiculous,” she says). After Portland, she moved to the San Francisco Bay area, and it was while living there that she started Doris.
Now 36 and living in Ashville, North Carolina, Crabb says she’s now at an age where she’d like to harness her years of experience toward an educational role. She still writes Doris, and has recently been involved in the creation of a healthcare center for women and trans people. She’s also been directing her energies toward reinvigorating the women’s health and self-care movement, pointing to recent events in South Dakota as a reason for returning to this kind of work.
Listening to Crabb talk is like reading her zine—she speaks plainly and possesses a slight awkwardness that comes from being acutely self-aware. And like her zines, she doesn’t shy away from moving conversations into difficult places or offering examples of mistakes she’s made and lessons she’s learned.
Interview by Debbie Rasmussen
You write in Doris about growing up surrounded by early politicizing forces but also various kinds of abuse. Can you talk about these early experiences?
My first six years of education were in a school that was very progressive and student-centered. In the ’70s, when I was in elementary school, there was funding for alternative education. I wasn’t surrounded by issues of materialism, I never learned about gossiping or being cruel, and I learned about movements for social change. But at the same time, my dad was extremely abusive to my mom—physically, emotionally, and sexually. After they divorced, my mom married this guy who was a total alcoholic. She was an alcoholic, too. They were super loving, but total drunks.
In sixth grade, I had to start going to public school. It was a huge, terrible change. I was such an open and loving person and I just did not understand the rules. I started living with my mom and step-dad in eighth grade. There were five kids, and not enough money. My stepbrother was a metal-head, but he started molesting me, and his friends were kind of in on it, too. So joining that group wasn’t an option. There were no punks—the people I knew thought punk was dead—but there were about five weirdos, so I hung out with them.
When did you first encounter anarchist or punk politics?
When I was 15, hanging out in downtown Minneapolis, there was some politicizing, but not a ton. I had friends who were in an anti-racist gang and they talked to me a lot about racism. And this anarchist group called Love and Rage was starting. I didn’t know that much about them. The first protest I saw was in Uptown—which now is super fancy, but then it was a mix between fancy and scummy—and it was against gentrification. It was 20 punks just marching through Uptown with “Fuck the Rich” signs, and all this media. I was 16. I didn’t take part in the protest, I just watched.
When I was 17, I took this women’s studies class, and I started retreating from society and dealing with some abuse stuff. During this time there was a lot of US intervention (in Central America), and there were huge protests in Minneapolis, having pretty successful results. I wanted to go, but I was terrified. The second day, the protesters were totally brutalized by the cops. A friend got pepper sprayed directly into her mouth. It was so overwhelming to me, I just cried and felt like everything was totally pointless. I felt like I should be out there, but I also didn’t want to be part of all that violence.
Then I went to Vermont—and I still didn’t really know what anarchism was or that you could really change anything in the world except through the structures that exist, or changing one person at a time. But I read and talked about anarchism a lot. This is when I started believing in anarchism and thinking that you can change the world and everyone’s going to jackhammer up the streets and plant gardens and start making decisions together and create communities. That whole utopian vision was so amazing to me. And I just totally believed and was so excited about things like alternative technology and squatting.
You wrote in one of your zines that realizing that the revolution wasn’t going to happen in your lifetime was a turning point for you...
At the time, I thought you had to do political organizing pretty much 100 percent of the time, and so I did. It was annoying to always be doing political stuff, but I was so excited about it happening, and there was still so far to go. I also had a bit of a martyr complex.
Partly this realization came because no one else seemed to be working that hard. But also, I asked a friend who was older if she thought the revolution would happen in our lifetime, and she said, “I really hope it doesn’t.” I was confused because she was more active, more articulate, and stronger than me. But she laid it out and said that if a revolution were to happen right now, it would probably lead to an even more reactionary and authoritarian world, because people’s ethics are so fucked up that we don’t have any kind of base for an egalitarian society. And it was one of those instances where someone says something and your mind just immediately switches.
I had also recently read Agents of Oppression. I hadn’t known how much state control there was over political organizing. It was surprising when our phone was tapped, you know? I just didn’t understand how much power the state had to come down on political groups.
Can you talk about the beginnings of Doris? Where were you then and what was going on?
I started it when I moved to Berkeley, around 1993. I’d always wanted to be a writer, but I wrote mostly fiction. I was in a political collective when I lived in Minneapolis, and we put out a magazine. I tried to write political stuff for that, but I couldn’t do it. I still had a lot to learn. When I first saw zines—and I didn’t see them until around 1992—I thought they were amazing. Snarla blew my mind. She was so pissed off and so crazy but so articulate. I thought it was great that she would write about pissing on her fingers and alienation, and that she was figuring things out in this public way, because I thought that in order to write you had to have it all figured out already.
When I started Doris, I was obsessed with secrets. I felt like everything was secret inside of me pretty much. I definitely had concrete secrets about abuse, about family, and about abusive situations I put myself in, and also feeling crazy. I was very afraid of going crazy. I also had secrets about how beautiful I thought things were. A lot of my friends were very tough and thought everything was disgusting capitalism. And I thought, “But look at all this beautiful stuff just laying around in hidden places,” and that was secret too.
The main reason I started writing zines was because I was obsessed with how alienated people were. Why did we just talk about music and tattoos, or Foucault? I wanted to break the barriers of what you could talk about. In the beginning I wanted to learn to write about political stuff. And then I stopped caring as much about that.
But to me your zines have always seemed very political, very anarchist. Just not in that hammering-you-over-the-head sort of way.
Maybe that’s what I mean. Maybe I thought I had to write about issues, and then I started to see that I didn’t. That I could embody it in other ways. That everything inside of me is political, I mean I think about politics all the time. But I didn’t have to figure out how to write about politics, it wasn’t something separate from my writing, if I was writing what I cared about, because what I care about is changing the world.
What role did writing zines play in your political progression?
It gave me courage to speak politically out loud. I feel like I can articulate when I’m writing. And it’s helped my overall self-confidence. I didn’t have much before I started. I think the role it’s played . . . you know, I started drinking really heavily in 1995, and didn’t do anything political, wasn’t around people doing political organizing anymore, for probably seven years. But I kept writing. I knew the drinking was temporary, but it lasted a lot longer than I thought it would. So I think writing the zine kept me grounded and reminded me that I still wanted to change the world, and I did still have something to offer, and I could still think if I put my mind to it. I could sober up for a few days or a few weeks and get myself thinking clearly enough to write about something I cared about. So in that way, it kept me alive.
Can you talk more about your experience with drinking? What was going on in your life?
When I started drinking I had a lot of stuff going on. There was so much anger pent up inside of me and I was terrified of it, and so angry that I couldn’t find people to be close to. Drinking definitely helped me process that stuff and it definitely helped me be around people who considered each other family in this way. It allowed me to be close to people and to become really angry and to sing, and play punk music, which has been good. And now, I have no problem getting angry when I need to. But I never would’ve been able to if I hadn’t been a drunk for a while. I know other people can, but I don’t think I personally could have.
But during this time, I was in a women’s health group, and we opened a women and transgender health resource center. And for the first time, I had the power. I knew what needed to get done, I knew how it needed to get done most efficiently, and I didn’t have patience for people coming in and not doing what they needed to do. It was very strange for me, because I’d always been the powerless one in groups. I think I was really shitty. I didn’t stay in the group very long, because I could see what was happening. Out of all the kinds of organizations, a women’s/transgender health project should not have somebody doing that kind of power trip. I think if I hadn’t been drinking, I would’ve been able to handle it better.
So I realized I had to quit drinking, and I moved out to the country, partly just to get away, and partly because I just couldn’t take it; I’d been writing a lot about abuse stuff, and people were talking to me about abuse stuff, and it was too much for me.
Is this what Support came out of?
One of the reasons I wanted to do (the zine) was because I had called out people who’d been abusive to friends, and I was confronting ex-boyfriends who’d been abusive to me. And everybody really just didn’t think they were abusive. Or really didn’t mean to be. Or couldn’t believe that that’s what I experienced.
It became really clear that people just do not know. So I wanted my friends to read about abuse and how it affects us and how not to be abusive. It seemed like I would be a good person to put out a zine about it. I really didn’t want to do it. But I felt like that was politically important for me to do, I felt like I was in a position where I could.
Shifting focus a bit, I wanted to talk about the zine you wrote as the DIY guide to depression...
(Laughs.) When I wrote that, I thought people would think I was completely insane. I just thought, “OK this is what I do, but everyone else will think I’m crazy.” But I’ve gotten the most feedback about that zine than any other.
You’ve mentioned that depression is an ongoing struggle...
Oh yeah. I mean I’m not so suicidal anymore, but I’m still depressed. How could you not be? The world is so fucked up. And I still feel hopeless sometimes, but it’s less. I stopped feeling so dramatic about my place in the world, and also, yes, the world is a terrible place, but there have also been incredible changes. Sometimes when I start to feel really hopeless about things, I read about the ’60s. It was unbearable then, and the movement was amazing. People thought the whole world was going to change, in a way that was less delusional than how I thought it was going to change. African countries were gaining independence. But at the same time, it was unbearable. Women had so few resources, men were just unbelievable pigs, and that was totally accepted in political circles. So it gives me hope that we’ve changed so much. And I believe that we’re continuing to change in very fundamental ways. Like the trans movement. A few years ago I didn’t really even know that trans was an option for people. And it’s amazing to me to see this fight to end the gender binary. Just that society’s moving in these directions despite all the issues it brings up. There’s so much social control, we’re losing on so many fronts, especially with state repression, and there’s so much materialism, just pushing and pushing, it’s so daunting. But there’s also some pretty magical stuff going on.
One of the reasons your writing seems to resonate with people is because you use such plain language to communicate complex ideas, particularly around anarchism. How do you define anarchism?
My definition is that people have the capability to live in a world without oppression and without coercive institutions and government, and that we have the ability to self organize. I’m not into this idea that we’re going to be free and chaotic. Sometimes what gets called direct democracy is how I envision anarchism—communities organized together, someone can be your representative, but they come back and tell you exactly what was said at this meeting, and if you don’t like it they can be recalled. I have this idea how the entire world would be run in an anarchist society, including the postal service, but it’s basically the idea that people can self organize, that we can live without coercion, that we can live in an ecologically sustainable way.
How have your politics evolved over the years?
One of the things that’s really great now that I’m older, is I’m able to be around different kinds of people, especially older people. My sister is part of this farmers’ market, and these people are not anarchists, supposedly. Some of them are old tobacco farmers who are now trying to grow something else, because they’re broke. They’re people from all different backgrounds, and they might’ve voted for Bush. But in their farmers’ market meetings they can do consensus better than anarchists can. They’ll be totally outspoken in their beliefs and disagree with whatever decision is trying to be made in the group. Maybe they want crafts to be sold in the farmers’ market and other people don’t, and they will go off about crafts and how they should be there, and when it comes down to the vote, they’ll abstain from voting because they see that it would be better for the community. I feel like I have a lot more faith in humanity, I’m much less dogmatic.
I’m also trying to embrace this idea that now that I’m older, I would like to be more of an educator. Often I think that everybody knows what I know. And I’m starting to realize that everybody does not know what I know, because I’m 36 and a lot of people are 15, and I should be conscious about doing some educating, because it would have been useful for me to have zines that explained some history.
You’ve written a lot about group process and the replication of oppression in radical movements. Do you have any new thoughts on that?
I think when people start doing political organizing, there’s this sense of urgency: things need to get done, and there’s no time. But when there’s a sense of urgency, there’s more room for power dynamics, to not make room for people who feel silenced, and not make room for larger discussions. So first of all, I wish people would embrace the basic idea that the ends don’t justify the means. And really embrace patience and make enough time for meetings and groups to be efficient but also value the work of empowering people to speak and people learning to be empowered to speak, and formulating ideas together. And knowing that that is a huge revolutionary thing we need to do. And that even if we win a particular issue, we are not going to change the world unless we do this work.
What do you spend your time doing these days?
I’ve worked for my aunt for a long time as a weaver. I make fancy scarves mostly, for the ultra rich. (Laughs.) When I moved to Berkeley she taught me. It’s a great job, but it’s just a job. And I’m trying to write a novel. And I’m in two bands. And I’m trying to relax more.
What’s the name of your band?
Trouble Trouble Trouble, I sing and play the bass. I was in another punk band before called Astrid Oto. Trouble Trouble Trouble doesn’t have any music out, but for the record, my other band did. I just sang in that one. I was also in a band that I just played bass for, no singing, which was called the Blank Fight.
Can you share the storyline of your novel?
(Laughs.) It’s ridiculous. Washington DC has had a chemical attack and the central government is in disarray and the economy has gone down the tubes, kind of how it was in the ’80s, so there’s white flight back to the suburbs and no more gentrification. That’s the setting, but it’s mostly about these two 15-year-old girls, their friendship. One of them is an anti-racist organizer, kind of a wild ass, but definitely 100 percent for the revolution, and the other is dealing with issues around depression, sexuality, silence and abuse.
You mentioned wanting to get back into political work. Do you know where you’re headed?
Yeah, I want to do education about women’s health and try to start more of a women’s health movement again. Self-care, abortion rights, everything. I’m not really sure if young girls have those resources to learn about their bodies and self-care. I want to teach classes on that and physiology and how our bodies work, and how everything is connected. I want to teach this as a political action. And then hopefully working to make reproductive health clinics better. This whole Supreme Court thing is really frightening. This work is important so that when the time comes, we can take care of things on our own. I also want to do support for a group of Spanish-speaking women in my town who are volunteer translators at our clinic, and who are now helping a group of Latina women to get resources to start their own community health center. I want to be more active in supporting communities of color.
And then eventually I want to be teaching. Not in a regular school, but I want to teach about history and philosophy. I also want to be more involved in street protesting again, and real education about it—giving flyers to strangers on the street. I don’t love street protesting, but I think it’s important that it’s ongoing and not just when major issues that come up. I want to work up to doing all that stuff, helping more counter-institutions, organizing meetings, making sure the meetings have good process. I feel like I’m at that age when that should be my role. •
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