Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote Scum (and Shot Andy Warhol) – Breanne Fahs

SolanisOn June 3, 1968, artist, and film director Andy Warhol (1928-1987) was shot and severely wounded as he talked on the telephone in his office located at 33 Union Square West in Manhattan. He was rushed to the hospital and declared clinically dead by doctors before being resuscitated. He underwent grueling surgeries that left a myriad of scars across his torso and required him to wear a surgical corset for the remainder of his life. Hours after the shooting, a young woman walked up to a police officer in Times Square, handed over her weapons and confessed to shooting Warhol. She was arrested and booked for the crime. The public soon learned the name of Valerie Solanas (1936-1988). Today she is best remembered as the woman who shot Andy Warhol. Her actions were horrific and nearly took Warhol’s life, however her story is not as widely known. Breanne Fahs decided to change that and find out the truth about Solanas’ turbulent life. This biography explores the life of Solanas, her relevance to the radical feminist movement and her descent into anarchy after shooting one of the biggest pop icons in history.

I must point out that the book is not heavily focused on the Warhol shooting or on the artist himself. Readers who are learning about Warhol for the first time will find a wealth of information in Bob Colacello’s “Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up“. There, Colacello does discuss the shooting and its aftermath but also provides an invaluable glimpse into the private side of Warhol. The author here discusses the shooting as expected but does not let it consume the book. In fact, the shooting is only part of the story, and we quickly learn that Solanas’ life was more chaotic and mysterious than one might expect. It is all on display here. Readers who are fans of Warhol may find this book difficult to read and wonder why anyone cares about her life. I struggled with this question too but decided to read the book and learn who she was and what propelled her to commit such a heinous crime. I received more than I bargained for.

Valerie Solanas is tragedy herself and I could not find one word to describe her. Her mental state is both well-known and well-documented but surprisingly she was also a college graduate and known to be highly intelligent. It has been said that there is a fine line between genius and insanity.  Her belief in radical feminism is also on display and culminates with the publication of the SCUM manifesto. The Society for Cutting up Men (SCUM) became Solanas’ crown jewel and part of her legacy. But her statements about the male species and desire for an all-female society have all the markings of fanaticism. And while she was moving forward with her manifesto, she was also coming apart at the seams, beginning a downward spiral that led her to shoot Warhol. Following her arrest, the need arose for legal counsel, yet her crime was so horrific that even hardened feminists second guessed supporting her and Valerie soon found herself persona non grata within the movement she believed in. The struggle over the moral issues at play are discussed in the book and readers may find themselves angered by the support that Solanas did receive. As my dad has always said “the 60s were a crazy time”.

I found myself saddened and surprised at what Fahs discovered regarding Solanas’ early life. Clues to her actions as an adult are in abundance and no one should have been surprised that she committed an act of violence. Years after shooting Warhol, she gained her freedom but would never have a normal life. And what we witness in the story, is the dark side to mental illness. I warn readers that her final descent into mental instability is disheartening. And her final days in San Francisco, California serve as the final curtain on a performance that was horrific and earth shattering.

Despite her brilliance, Valerie ensured that her legacy would be the attempted murderer of Andy Warhol. She was a gifted writer and aspiring filmmaker, but she could not overcome her demons and the mental illness that prevented her from living a stable and productive life. In fifty-two years, she authored a book, worked with a pop-culture icon, and even became a mother of two.  Her adult years would be consumed by a nomadic lifestyle in and out of homelessness.  However, she managed to keep moving until time was no longer on her side. To this day, Andy Warhol is a topic of conversation, and his art remains on display in Manhattan galleries. But if we discuss Warhol, we also must discuss Valerie Solanas. Thirty-three years have passed since her death, yet her actions and writings will live forever in infamy but also as part of American history. This is the definitive account of Valerie Solanas’ life and a time in America when social change was taking the United States into unchartered waters.

“Valerie’s truth was lost to the world of mental health diagnoses, treatment, imprisonment, abuse, and ultimately, descent into the intensifying paralysis of paranoia and self-destruction.” 


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