I've written about my discovery of her writing, what it meant to a girl drowning in a culture where even being feminist was unthinkable and being a lesbian was (in Russ's words) "a sin against reality." She gave me the tools to dissect if not dismantle the patriarchy and validated my longing for a woman-centered world. At 14 I was already angry with Tolkien and C.S. Lewis for ignoring or devaluing women; soon I would be annoyed with the early Ursula K. Le Guin for the same reason. (She got better -- a lot better -- and became extremely important to me later on.)
Joanna Russ explicitly said it was OK to be smart, OK to be angry, that I could "love God and art and myself better than anything and still have orgasms." (That's been in my LJ/DW profile for years.) She shaped my thinking. She gave me courage and validation at a time when I was being told in church and at school that as a girl I could never hope to be equal to any man. (I had one teacher who spent a lot of classroom time disparaging women and said upfront that he never gave A's to girls. I had him for English for two years running, the only time I've ever not aced English courses. Yes, this was a public school.)
I needed to hear those words; living as I did in an abusive family, in a country village more isolated than seems possible, in a profoundly fundamentalist church, books were my only freedom. They saved my life. Authors were my (sometimes quarrelling) mothers and fathers. And that's why I am grieving so much for Joanna Russ.
Most of my formative authors were dead long before I was born: Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Louisa May Alcott. Even C.S. Lewis died when I was 4, before I became aware of him. But Joanna Russ is the first of my formative authors to die. I'll grieve like this when Ursula K. Le Guin dies, but for very different reasons, and when Barbara Michaels dies. (She dared to hint at an abusive father/daughter relationship in Ammie, Come Home. She was the first writer to say to me, "Father ... hurt" in the voice of a tormented ghost.) And Samuel Delany, who casually included sadomasochistic characters in "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones." Their kink isn't central to the story, but the two of them are, and they're powerful, and they are not serial killers.
Other writers later brought me great treasures, books I loved and love, fresh ideas, beauty, insight. But the ones that formed my lifeline when I had almost nothing else will always matter most. They saved me. Joanna helped save me.
And they inspired in me the passionate desire to do the same thing for other isolated people. At the heart of my burning desire to write has always been the need to reach out to other people. To tell my difficult experiences so they could see that it's possible to survive. To speak out about the hidden things so they will never be as isolated as I was. I was so sure I was crazy and different and alone. Those few voices gave me hope and ultimately led me through the wilderness to this community.
Thank you, dear Joanna, for your words and wit. You saved my life. I hope you have found peace.