A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2005) is an art of losing and finding one’s self through abandoned plays, dreams of protected tortoises and the careless fury inside fathers. Finding herself being “mansplained” to about her own book, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (2003), gave birth to the essay and coined the term that introduced Solnit to a younger generation of feminists: Men Explain Things to Me.
Older feminists have pride in surviving a spectrum of offenses because there was little other choice. You either got a thick skin or you laughed it off. It’s the whole “not-that-bad thing,” Solnit said. The elasticity required to pull that off became a badge of honor. It’s also become a point of contention, with younger feminists merely saying, What if we don’t want to laugh it off anymore? Solnit said that she too fights against that coding all the time. She occasionally still hears the whisper inside to just “toughen up” and look away.
“Weinstein existed,” she said, because, “it takes a village to rape a woman.”
Solnit as a young woman, as depicted in the book, doesn’t give the impression of being too attached to existing. She dreams often of leaving her body behind and taking flight. “My body was a lonely house. I was not always home; I was often elsewhere,” she writes in the chapter “Disappearing Acts” before describing the photo on the book’s cover photo: she’s wearing a man’s vest backwards and singing “Ready for War,” pressed up against the wall, back to the camera. “The posture speaks of an attempt to elude and melt away. I’m trying to appear and to disappear at once.”
It’s when she’s writing about place that her book comes alive. Her existence feels a little more contained, a little more filled out in the places she defines herself through. While there’s an occasional glimpse of her before the San Francisco apartment, and later after, her memoir largely begins there. It’s almost as if she didn’t exist before this apartment with a secret wallpaper she had to peel into, corked ceilings, and framed windows from the 1920s that let in wet ripples of light. It was “a chamber-less nautical shell and it helped me. I literally took form inside it. It was really beautiful, and it’s still so deeply imprinted on me,” she said. “I still have accidental moments where if I think of the bathroom, I think of that bathroom. I had that moment where I gave the taxi driver that address even though I’d left…what is it now, 13 years ago.”
Solnit refers to her childhood as “inside out.” Everything dangerous was inside the house (“My mother’s nose was rearranged by my father,” she said) and outside (animals, library, landscapes) was safe. The only sister of two older brothers and a younger one, she grew up in a very male house where being a boy was “the norm.” She describes her mom as being difficult and having “internalized misogyny deeply,” while still doing civil rights and fair-housing work, subscribing to Ms. magazine and having a clear sense of using one’s voice for good. And yet details about her interior familial life or trauma are sparse and not shared. “I don’t think my experiences are particularly interesting, and I’m not that interested in them,” she said. “I felt really satisfied to do a book that was both deeply personal and neither about family or romance.”
She calls herself middle of the spectrum of how gendered violence impacts someone: “I’m far from the best but I’m far from the worst case.” While later living alone in San Francisco in the ’80s, she experiences a series of night stalking and violent street harassment—which she calls the norm then. There were also dead women everywhere; in the news, in alleyways she lived close to, in the TV she had to give away because a woman was “murdered on each channel.”
“Women imagine being killed every day,” said Solnit. She lists the number of ways, innumerable, in which we are told to avoid being killed. “Without acknowledging that we live in a world that’s murderous towards women.” She finds that contradiction unbearable. It’s mass gaslighting where the choice is between acquiescing that none of it happened, which guarantees you re-integration into power structures and institutions, or clinging to your truth as a “Cassandra and Thorn.”
“Both of those are terrible choices,” she said, “and we all navigate a little of X and a little of Y.” She’d hoped in writing her memoir that it would be useful for younger women to see not that she was “exceptionally oppressed,” but how ordinary it is to be made voiceless.
“I am a woman who has been told at crucial times that I was not believable and that I was confused and that I was not competent to deal in facts. And in all that, I am ordinary. After all, I live in a society where rape kits and campus-stalking awareness month and domestic violence shelters in which women and children are supposed to hide from husbands and fathers are normal fixtures,” she writes in the chapter “Audibility, Credibility, Consequence.”
Recollections is also drenched in longing. An impressionist painting, hazy and dreamlike at first, gaining shape and form as the chapters go on, Solnit pines after a city and time that essentially don’t exist anymore. She writes in the chapter “Foghorn and Gospel”: “The texture of that bygone life seems hard to convey now: we were prepared for encounters with strangers in ways that the digital age would buffer a lot of us from later. It was an era of both more unpredictable contact and more profound solitude.” I told Solnit I distrust nostalgia. Why yearn after an imperfect era?
“I think you can describe what was poetic, lyrical, magical about something without wishing that it still existed,” she said. “To say something’s beautiful is not necessarily to say that you wish you had it now.” She still loves the San Francisco she grew up in. The city of the Sierra Club, Harvey Milk, and experimental poetry—now, as she put it, a tech dystopia. But there was also a richer inner life then, when “solitude was profoundly solitary.” Solnit left home in her late teens (doing a brief stint of modeling in Paris, which she wrinkled her nose at now), with doors slammed shut behind her and no help from her family. But low tuition, rent control, and later freelance paychecks being enough allowed her to run wild as a writer with a new voice. The different economy of our times, and careers, means that some of that wildness will never be seen again—not when media jobs are few, freelancing checks are paltry, and most have to juggle multiple jobs.
What are the conditions then in which culture flourishes? she asked me. “New York and San Francisco will have old poets, but will they have young poets?”
All products featured on Vanity Fair are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission.
More Great Stories From Vanity Fair
— Why Kensington Palace Just Can’t Let Go of Meghan Markle
— On With the Show! See the 2021 Hollywood Portfolio
— In Conversation: Roxane Gay and Monica Lewinsky on Trauma
— Reply All’s Implosion Reveals the Limits of One-Sided Internet Relationships
— Harry and Meghan Have “No Regrets” as Royal Exit Becomes Official
— Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen on Their Friendship’s Origins
— Proust Questionnaire: Watch Michael B. Jordan Answer Personality-Revealing Questions
— Can This Photographer Save Beirut’s Architectural Treasures?
— Seven Fashion Brands to Shop for a Fresh Start This Spring
— From the Archive: How Tobacco Heiress Doris Duke Got Away With Murder
— Not a subscriber? Join Vanity Fair to receive full access to VF.com and the complete online archive now.