The rise of Katherine Dunn
Nick Rossich hunched down on the stairs, aghast at what he was witnessing.
His older sister was walking toward the front door of the family's Southeast Portland home, her head down, expression fixed. Their mother followed behind her, holding a broomstick high in the air.
The stick came down hard on the girl's back. Thwack! Velma Rossich yanked back her arm and brought the makeshift weapon down again, even harder. Thwack! She hit her daughter over and over and over.
More than 50 years later, Nick can still vividly recall the noise that broomstick made when it struck flesh and bone. And how his sister responded to the assault. She continued walking. She didn't try to ward off the attack. She didn't yell out.
"When a blow hit her head, she would rearrange her glasses and take several more steps," Nick remembers. "Mom was viciously beating her with the broomstick, and she was walking to the door. She wasn't running. She had a look, like, 'I'm not going to let this get to me.' "
Nick's sister, Katherine Dunn, was 17 years old. And she just kept walking. Out the front door, down the path. She would not return home. She was on her own now.
Dunn would make it on her own. She wrote the 1989 novel "Geek Love," a National Book Award finalist that quickly achieved cult status and continues to sell many thousands of copies every year. She became a source of awe and gratitude -- and no small amount of mystery -- to fans around the world.
News about Dunn during the two-and-a-half decades following her literary breakthrough tended to focus on "Cut Man," the novel she obsessively worked on for years and never completed. When she died in 2016 at age 70, "Cut Man" died with her.
But the struggle that led Dunn to "Geek Love" -- a moving, bizarro story about a family of genetically altered circus freaks -- tells us much more about the iconoclastic author than the struggle that followed it. Her success did not come easily or quickly. Dunn spent years figuring out her place in the world: making sense of her difficult childhood, honing her ambitions and tamping down her fears, finding her style as a writer. Through it all, she scrapped to pay the rent.
"We were very poor," her son, Eli Dapolonia, says. "She worked at two or three jobs all the time."
Through much of the 1970s, she and Eli lived in a 400-square-foot studio apartment in Northwest Portland. This was long before gentrification arrived in the area. She hauled furniture out of dumpsters to fill the place. Eli had to sleep in the small walk-in closet, her mother's wardrobe hanging over him in bed. Dunn couldn't afford to buy her son or herself new clothes.
"I never minded," Eli says. "We had a warm place to sleep and I was never hungry."
He wasn't hungry in part because Dunn volunteered at the grocery co-op Food Front, which allowed her to trade work at the store for food.
"I remember her bringing home big buckets of peanut butter and honey," Eli says. "I think I went three years on nothing but peanut butter-and-honey sandwiches for lunch."
One day, as Dunn lugged a bag of groceries home from the co-op, Eli in tow, she tripped on a curb. The bag toppled, and a carton of milk split open on the sidewalk. Eli watched the liquid spread across the sidewalk, "bright white on the black pavement."
"It was one of the few times I ever saw her cry," he says. Dunn wasn't physically hurt. It was worse than that. Her growing boy would have to go a week without milk.
Dunn was already a published author at this point. She wrote two novels while in her twenties, 1970's "Attic" and 1971's "Truck," sui generis stories full of adolescent dreams and sex and trauma.
The conventional wisdom about these two early, rapidly written novels is that they are shocking for the sake of being shocking, that they're the ungrammatical, Kerouac-inspired works of an immature writer still learning how to write. Dunn herself seemed to agree with this view.
"She was very honest and told me that it was almost a mistake the first two books got published," says Jim Redden, who worked with her at the alternative weekly Willamette Week in the 1980s -- and became her boyfriend. "She actually didn't know proper English when she wrote them."
Another fellow Willamette Week writer, Susan Stanley, asked Dunn for copies of the novels after failing to find any at local used bookshops. "She said, 'I will give them to you with one proviso: that you never read them,'" Stanley says.
To be sure, neither "Attic" nor "Truck" is a modern classic like "Geek Love." But the novels are far from failures.
"You have to consider the context of the times," says Paul Pomerantz, Dunn's college boyfriend who would reunite with -- and marry -- her decades later. "The 1960s were a unique period. The country was coming apart at the seams. There was all this reckless behavior. [The novels] were cutting edge."
Pomerantz is right: "Attic" and "Truck" hit bookstore shelves at the height of the counterculture, when a whole generation seemed to be lost, the social contract irretrievably broken. Publishers were desperate to find writers who could explain what was really going on with the thousands of young Americans who were turning on, tuning in and dropping out. Harper & Row thought Dunn's fiction, with its swirling, violent, stream-of-consciousness narratives, did just that.
The publisher, and most critics, didn't realize that Dunn wasn't actually a voice of the counterculture. The two main characters in "Truck," she wrote in notes for her second novel, "are not hippies, yippies, liberals, radicals or representatives of any other group." They were working-class adolescents. They were just trying to survive and find some kind of happiness, not make a better world.
The Oregonian wrote that "Attic," a prison story inspired by an actual brief stint Dunn had in a Missouri jail, had "the ring of truth, the truth of the lives lived by many young people in America in the second half of the 20th century." The praise surely buoyed the fledgling author. But "Attic" and "Truck" didn't make many cash registers ring. The novels soon fell out of print. There were no royalties, leaving Dunn to find low-wage jobs and shop at Food Front.
Her next novel, she decided, if there was a next novel, would be different.
Nick watched Katherine disappear down the street that day their mother attacked her with the broomstick. She hadn't shown any emotion as the blows fell on her head and back and shoulders, but her 13-year-old brother couldn't stop crying. "I didn't want her to leave," he recalls. "She was like a sister-mom to me. She was always very caring."
Katherine was her mother's favorite, Nick says. That was part of the problem. Dunn insisted on getting an education; she was the only one in the family -- she also had three much-older siblings -- who seemed determined to do so. "She knew what she wanted in life," Nick says.
It was what her mother wanted from life too. Velma came from a hard-working, tenant-farming clan, but she made paintings and sculpted in her free time.
Art served as her solace, but she couldn't paint the rest of her life out of the picture.
"She was a wild woman," Pomerantz says. "A very intellectually curious woman, pressed into a housewife role that she didn't want, and she took it out on anyone she came across who struck her wrong."
Velma would become enraged all the time. She'd punch her daughter and chase after her. When she couldn't catch her, she'd grab whatever was at hand and throw it. That included a flathead screwdriver one time. The screwdriver punctured Dunn's calf and stuck.
"She wore the scar with pride and never tried to cover it up," Eli says.
That scar meant something to her. It was, perhaps, hard evidence of the inherent ugliness in the world, and of how easily love could twist into hate. She believed in facing up to the ugliness.
"The ultra-reality is, after all," Dunn wrote in a 1991 personal letter, "that bombs can crash through the ceiling even when you're hiding under the bed."
This attitude might be why she became fascinated with boxing. In the 1980s and '90s, after moving into journalism, she became arguably the best chronicler the sport had. And she didn't just write about the sweet science: she learned how to do it, training and sparring for years at local gyms.
"She recognized the capacity for violence in herself," longtime friend Vicki Nutt says. "I think she took to boxing to direct that violence."
Dunn's son has a somewhat softer take on the lure of boxing for her. "She was not a violent person," Eli says. "But she believed women should be able to take care of themselves. She was never interested in portraying herself as a victim."
He points out that Dunn reconciled with her mother and took care of her in the last years of Velma's life.
"I'm not sure I could have forgiven her," Eli says. "But she did."
Katherine Dunn was born in Garden City, Kansas, in 1945. Her arrival could not hold the family together. Her father left home before she turned 2, gone for good.
The abandonment haunted her while she was growing up.
"She never could locate her father," Nick, her half-brother, says. "She would call around to bars and ask for him by name. The bartender would say, 'Hold on, I'll check.' She'd tell me there'd be that moment, when you think he's going to come on the line and your life is going to change. But he never did."
Velma quickly moved on, marrying a diesel mechanic named George Rossich -- "a kind man," Dunn later said of her step-father. Nick was born, and the peripatetic family ended up in Oregon.
Dunn fled her mother's home in search of a better life, but of course it wasn't easy to find. The teenager ended up joining a traveling gang of young magazine-subscription hawkers. The whole operation was a con, the subscriptions obscenely overpriced and the sales pitch leaning hard on invented, Oliver Twist-like tales of hardship. This led to Dunn passing a bad check, which landed her in the Jackson County Jail in Missouri.
The narrator of "Attic," an Oregon girl named Katherine who's been nabbed for trying to cash a bum check, chronicles her own life and those of her beaten-down, resentment-fueled fellow inmates.
The autobiographical novel makes clear just how horrifying Dunn's time in jail was. Early on in the story, as Katherine is frog-marched to the courthouse in chains, a guard "bends down and nibbles at my ear and says 'If you try to run I'll shoot you dead.' I can feel his groin gun nudging me in the butt with every step and I know he's telling the truth."
The novel shocked some members of Dunn's family, but not simply because it was based on her actual experiences. It was the graphic depictions of human degradation. "One of her relatives quit speaking to her because of the book," Pomerantz says. "All that 'filthy' imagery."
(New York Times critic Elizabeth Dalton agreed that "Attic" offered a lot of filthy imagery, noting that Dunn seemed obsessed with the toilet and that the novel includes "a number of fantastic elaborations on the excremental and sexual themes.")
Jackson County's sheriff at the time, Arvid Owsley, vouched for the story's authenticity. He remembered Katherine Dunn well. "She wasn't a bad looking gal," he told The Kansas City Star in 1970. "She was different from most of the women."
Dunn's time in jail scared her reasonably straight. "I saw myself at a fork in the road, where my choices were a life of petty and extremely unglamorous crime, or getting my sh-- together in a major way," she said in an interview years later.
She returned to Oregon and enrolled at Portland State College, intent on becoming a writer. To pay tuition, she hustled pool in seedy joints around the area, taking Nick along when she really needed a score.
"They would crawl the pool halls and she would look an even easier mark because she had her little brother [with her]," says Eli, relating stories his uncle and mother told him. "She never got rich, but she was good enough to win consistently."
Soon she moved on from Portland State, earning a full scholarship at Reed College, her dream school. The pool-hustling came to an end, but Nick still tagged along with her, biking out to the southeast-Portland campus, because "she was my island of peace," he says. "She was always there to take time to help me out. She'd break away from her schedule, however busy she was."
Nick remembers his sister creating an idealized Portland for him, imagining their world as she thought it should be, a world where they didn't feel like outsiders.
"She said there should be a giant statue in the Willamette," he says. "Some kind of Spartacus, with one leg on one side of the river, one on the other. She could make you see it."
"She'd get you rolling -- she was very witty," he adds. "She'd try to catch you out in things. Ask your opinion about something. She'd show you why you were wrong, or she'd be excited because you were right."
This was Reed's influence on Dunn, opening up her intellect, making her push and question and prod. But her love for the school wasn't enough to keep her on campus. She was writing "Attic," and she was restless, so she decided to take a break from her studies and hit the road to juice her creative momentum.
In San Francisco she met Dante Dapolonia, a charismatic New Yorker with long hair and a handlebar mustache.
"Maybe he was a bad influence," their son, Eli, says.
Maybe so, because Dunn never returned to college. Instead, she and Dante set off to see the world, traveling through Central America and then on to Europe.
"Katherine was really smitten with that guy," says Nutt, who knew Dante in high school and later became a close friend of Dunn's. "I think he was the love of her life. She was obsessed with him."
They did seem like a perfect match in many ways: they were both smart and adventurous. He was a wannabe poet, while she was determined to write novels.
"They talked about writing all the time," Nutt says. She adds that the relationship turned out to be a "rough ride" for Dunn, with Dante leaving her in Ireland -- where she gave birth to Eli -- before they got back together, the first of many breakups and reconciliations.
Dunn eventually brought Dapolonia back to Portland with her. It was a difficult period for the couple. They had a child and no prospects, with little idea of how to make their dreams come true. Hard times are hard on love affairs, and after a handful of years, Dunn finally decided to end the relationship. (Dapolonia, who politely declined to be interviewed for this story, worked as a 9-1-1 operator while helping to raise Eli. In the early 2000s, he pulled off a string of bank robberies, becoming known as the "Waddling Bandit." He spent nearly a decade in federal prison.)
Out on her own, Dunn did what she had to do for herself and her son. She worked as a waitress at the Stepping Stone Cafe on Northwest Quimby Street, put together a house-painting crew, and even made extra cash as a model for life-drawing classes.
Her steadiest job was as a late-night bartender at the dive bar Earth on Northwest 21st Avenue, a rough, wild neighborhood in the 1970s. Members of the Hell's Angels and the Gypsy Joker biker gang often spent time at Earth.
"In an environment like that, you have to be in total control of almost every molecule in the place every minute," she said in a 1983 Willamette Week article about bartending in the city. "... You can't be a girl behind the bar. You've got to be a woman. When the guys come in there to get sloshed, you must -- just by your demeanor -- remind them that they are now a guest in your home."
Eli loved spending Saturday mornings at the Stepping Stone, where his mother would give him and his friends banana bread and hot chocolate. "It's one of my favorite memories," he says. He didn't get to have a similar bonding experience with her at Earth, but he'd eventually hear the stories.
"She always handled herself well and without fear," Eli says. "She took knives from men twice her size, stepped in between men bent on shedding blood, and never came home with a scratch. She was confident and fearless, and they respected her."
Dunn was equally fearless artistically during this time, if not necessarily as confident. She tried new things, new forms and themes, publishing in underground publications, asking for feedback.
"Hit her she/screams/kick her she/bites/shtup her she/heals over in the night," she wrote in a poem about "Poopy Twitch," described as "a single wildly beautiful gypsy head, long elegant arms, high breasts, narrow waist spreading into three sets of legs complete with ventral and dorsal cracks, each of the six size 71/2-feet clad in high-heeled sandals."
The struggling author spent a couple of years working on another autobiographical novel, called "Toad," but ultimately abandoned it. "It was written in a very dark period -- she was kind of down, kind of depressed," Eli says. "She was normally such a positive person, so she decided she didn't want it published."
Then, finally, came the moment of inspiration.
She decided to take a walk with Eli one warm, summer day, but her son, then about 8 years old, didn't want to join her. She headed out on her own, a "little miffed" at Eli for balking at the opportunity to spend quality time with her.
"I came to the big experimental Rose Garden in Washington Park in Portland, way on the top of the hill," she said in an interview. "I sat on the brick steps there and looked out at all these hundreds of varieties of roses, each of which had been bred very carefully for particular qualities: Different colors, shapes and scents, one color on the inside of the petal, another color on the outside. I started thinking about a topic that had engaged me for a long time, nature vs. nurture, and about the manipulation of genetic heritage. It occurred to me that I could have designed a more obedient son."
"Geek Love" was born.
By this time, Dunn had become a mainstay in Portland's arts community, taking part in readings at the Long Goodbye club -- where she once witnessed a young Courtney Love reciting her poetry in a bikini -- and attending gallery openings. Her fellow artists were drawn to her, and she became a kind of den mother to a large group of them.
"She was fascinating; she had this puckish sense of humor," says Stanley, the journalist and longtime friend. "She was so supportive of writers and artists. She was just the kindest person I've ever known."
The support she offered wasn't just emotional. She bought friends' paintings and went to the restaurants where they worked, often tipping more than the entire check, even though she couldn't afford to be so generous. She helped set up a writers' collective so freelancers could get health insurance.
Meanwhile, she'd begun to figure out how to pay the bills with her writing. She became a regular contributor to Willamette Week (and an occasional contributor to The Oregonian), sometimes sharing a byline with her then-husband -- and fellow boxing aficionado -- Peter Fritsch.
Dunn discovered that journalism suited her. She liked doing research, and, says Vicki Nutt, she was an "extraordinarily good listener."
She always had been a good listener. You'd leave her on a park bench to get coffee, Paul Pomerantz remembers from their college days, and when you came back "someone would be beside her telling her their life story. People just wanted to tell her things."
Dunn might have once worried that she'd become like her mother, frustrated and volatile, but that hadn't happened. She was a loving parent, a caring friend, a backer of good causes.
None of which meant she was "normal" -- and she never wanted to be. Word got around about the strange novel Dunn was working on, about the hunchback albino dwarf, the boy with flippers instead of limbs, and other equally out-there characters.
When Stanley learned she was about to meet Dunn for the first time, she didn't know what to expect. "I'd heard what her book was about and thought, 'That's got to be one creepy broad,'" she says with a laugh.
Slowly, in between her shifts at Earth and walks with her son, in between researching boxing articles and attending friends' poetry readings, Dunn's novel came together.
"Every night," Eli says, "I'd go to sleep with the sound of her typing away."
-- Douglas Perry; published in The Oregonian in 2017. Winner of the Society of Professional Journalists feature-writing award.
Photo courtesy of Eli Dapolonia.