The best revenge

After a life of struggle, doubt, and abuse, Janis Ian comes out on top with a new album, a world tour, and a thriving writing career and Melissa Etheridge does the amazing interview

BY Melissa Etheridge

May 28 1995 12:00 AM ET

What was her sexuality? I think, with her, anybody would have been OK. She was fragile, really little, skinny. God, she had the best smile; she lit up the stage like nobody else. Her death was a great loss to me. It took me decades to get over being pissed at her.

I didn’t know her, and I’m pissed off at her too because I wanted to know her. Tell me about Pat. She’s been something pretty remarkable. I was coming out of a horrible straight marriage. Not because I was gay but because he had become psychotic.

Can you talk about this more? I’ve never talked about my marriage. I think it’s hard for 18-year-olds today to understand what it was like to be gay when I was in my 20s. The pressure to be normal that we all face in toothpaste ads and television shows was escalated so much higher than anything they would know today. So when I fell in love with my ex-husband—and I emphasize that I fell in love with him—it was a great relief to me. I certainly believed that life was going to be easier. I realize, in retrospect, that most abusers, when they first fall in love, go through a honeymoon period of six to 18 months. They’re good and well-behaved, and they have boundaries. That slowly changes. My ex-husband didn’t seem to have any issues with my having been in relationships with women. I now realize it titillated him. It made him think that I would want a ménage à trois one day. I had never been sexually abused in my life. I had never been hit. I had never been verbally abused. So I had no experience with the warning signs.

How did he get control over you? He wore me down. It’s a pretty classic pattern: You remove the person from their family, their friends, everyone they trust, and you isolate and isolate until they’re totally dependent on you for emotional support. It began with little things, like he wanted this side of the bed, I wanted that side. He won. He wanted to come home; I wanted to stay out. He won. It escalated to the point where it was easier to say yes than face a possible scene. I firmly believe he became psychotic. You don’t hold a gun on someone if you’re not psychotic.

He held a gun on you? Yeah, but before that something in me snapped. Everybody’s got their lines. Some people’s line is having something broken or being yelled at or having a child hurt. He crossed my line. He hit me; I flew across the room. I’m 4 foot 10; he was a big guy. I looked up from the floor, dodged a beer bottle, and heard him say, “I don’t know why you made me do that.” Suddenly I had turned into one of those women you read about.

Like Tina Turner! Yes. I remember going backstage and meeting Tina Turner, long before she came out as a battered wife. She was weeping because Ike was making her go onstage with dirty hair. I remember thinking, Why doesn’t she just tell him to go fuck himself? Now I understand. It can happen to anyone. It doesn’t matter if you’ve had people telling you you’re shit all your life, like Greg Louganis had, or if you’ve always been treated well, like I had. Finally I sought counseling and moved out. But when I went back to talk to him about the details of the separation, he pulled a gun and kept it on me for about six hours.

Did you think you were going to die? There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to die. I can’t tell you what it’s like to hear someone you once loved say, “I’m going to take you out and then take myself out.” You go through every possible emotion—grieving, crying, laughing. I was screaming, “Do it!” I couldn’t take the waiting.

How did you get away? He’s Catholic. I told him he would never get into heaven. I told him he needed some Valium. I got him a couple of beers. I stalled him until he got tired enough to stop. When he put the gun down, I reached over and took it. I knew if he moved, I would kill him. I was never alone with him again after that. I was terrified of him until three years ago, when he developed a spinal tumor and became incapable of walking.

So you feel safe from him now? It took the O.J. Simpson case, which is 12 years after I left my ex, for me to turn to Pat with a look of total astonishment and say, “That motherfucker could have killed me.”

Since you stayed with him seven years, do you think this was your last-ditch attempt to be a heterosexual? Absolutely not. I don’t think that it is out of the realm of possibility that someone who is gay can fall in love with the opposite sex. This may sound stupid, but I didn’t get out much. I didn’t date. I’ve been “Janis Ian” since I was 14. There was a whole realm of human experience that I did not experience.

I bet you had major trust issues after that experience. No shit. I met Pat after I had given up. I was convinced that I would never be in love with anybody again, and that was fine. I had been very sick with chronic fatigue syndrome, and it was scary because I had a lot of central nervous system involvement. I got really stupid. I could not follow the plot on Happy Days. I was introduced to Pat because I was looking for someone who had the time to come to my house to play checkers or chess. Suddenly there she was. It was really unexpected.

When you were married, did you consider yourself a lesbian? We had a wonderful physical relationship. Sex was great. Lesbians are going to hate reading that, but it’s true. I don’t know if that makes me a bisexual. I don’t think so. I knew when I was 9 that I was gay. How old were you?

I was 16 when it was first becoming apparent. But I look back on it and I always had crushes on girls. I didn’t know enough about homosexuality at that time to think anything. What was it like raising Pat’s daughter? I didn’t. I got there after she had been raised.

Would you like to have children? I wanted children so badly. But it turned out that I couldn’t, and shortly after that I had a hysterectomy, so that was the end of that. Then I woke up one day, and I was 38 and broke with no future and thought, Not a good time to adopt. Today I’m thinking, I couldn’t do it. I’m way too tired, way too selfish.

Have your female fans changed the way they approach you since you came out? Well, I certainly get an awful lot of people who come up and say, “Love your column,” and then keep walking. It’s like a code.

I think one of the most inspiring things for me is when young kids come up to me and say, “I think I might be gay.” I like it that with you or with me they can see gay people in relationships. There is still that cliché that we are all sleeping around and none of us have families.

Did you ever have a drug problem? Oh, yeah. I had two or three drug problems. I never went near smack because it absolutely scared the shit out of me. I took a tiny bit of acid once, and that scared me. I did massive amounts of dope from 1967 to 1969. I smoked a ton of pot, but I have next to no memory of it. I must have smoked ten or 12 joints a day. Then I stopped because I started to get asthmatic from it.

The way you look to me today, you are the happiest, healthiest, right-on-straightforward strongest I have ever seen you. I think a lot of it has to do with losing everything. It’s a cliché. In a two-year period I watched my mom, who has multiple sclerosis, take her last steps, all my grandparents die, all my money disappear—everything I had saved my whole life. Losing it all does something to you. You can become really bitter and envious and see people like you and say, “How come Melissa’s playing Madison Square Garden?” You can go down that path, or you can realize you really don’t have anything to lose, so who cares?

The story of your life is that 30 years ago, with “Society’s Child,” they were yelling “nigger lover” at you, and now they are yelling “faggot.” You’re always the one out there. I really believe there will be generations that will be inspired by you and appreciate what you have done. And if not, it’s OK too. I don’t know how to do anything else.

Me too. I know there are ups and downs. There will be the Madison Square Gardens and then there won’t be the Gardens. But there is a lot of strength in that position, Melissa, because then you can really say, “I’m a voice, and I don’t care.”

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