In the murky world of fanzines, news not-fit-to-print is gleefully celebrated. Sold mainly by subscription or hidden away deep in the back racks of small bookstores, these freewheeling publications seldom get much publicity, no matter how raunchy or shocking their content. Leave it to the censors to turn that around.
Last year the Newsstand International in Bellingham, Washington, was embroiled in a battle with the Whatcom County prosecutor, David McEachran, who wanted the `zine Answer Me! pulped as porno. In February, 1995, McEachran filed a felony charge of promotion of pornography against newsstand owner Ira Stohl and manager Kristina Hjelsand. If convicted of selling the `zine, they could have been sentenced to five years in the slammer and paid up to $10,000 in fines.
In late January the case came to court. In a week long trial, a jury of seven women and five men concluded, after six hours of deliberation, that defendants Stohl and Hjelsand did not knowingly sell obscene material at their newsstand and that Answer Me! did not meet the state definition of obscene or lewd material. State law prohibits the production and circulation of patently offensive material depicting lewd exhibitions of nudity or violent sexual activity which has no artistic, political or scientific merit.
The case was weak from the outset. Stohls attorney, Richard Platte, told The Bellingham Herald it was a misadventure from the beginning and gleefully charged that the prosecution itself had been shown to be obscene.
Prosecutor McEachran told the jury that the defense witnesses who claimed the fanzine contained worthwhile information on rape and violence were taking a narrow perspective. The good or lukewarm is overwhelmed by the bad, he said.
Writing about rape in Answer Me! from both the victims and the assailants point of view is what brought this case in the dock. The content of the publication and how it got to trial in the first place is a more compelling story than the expected not guilty verdict of the trial.
Wild impulses, gruesome photographs of mutilated women and spasms of prose run throughout Answer Me!, an annual `zine produced by Jim and Debbie Goad of Portland, Oregon. The rape issue includes a stomach-churning narrative by a child molester; a harrowing first-person account by Stephen Donny the Punk Donaldson, a pacifist who was repeatedly raped in prison; a report from Debbie Goad on her close call with rape when she was eight years old; and a teen-style mock magazine interview with serial killer Richard Ramirez (Favorite food: womens feet).
The Goads idea of comic relief is a fold-out board game with predator and prey cards and a collection of rape jokes. (How can a blind rape victim identify the identity of her rapist? Guess shell have to fuck him again, wont she?) The cartoon cover depicts a waitress with a black eye, a bandage on her cheek and a name tag reading Hi, I asked for it.
Answer Me! was not a big seller in Bellingham. The newsstand had sold about 10 copies before the owners were hit with the porno rap in this town of 57,000 on the edge of the Puget Sound, just below the Canadian border. About a fifth of the population is made up of students, faculty and administrators at Western Washington University, where flannel is a fashion statement and a liberal attitude prevails.
But it was a student at the university, Laura Bergstrom, who set the Answer Me! spectacle in motion in January, 1995, by airing her complaints in the student newspaper. She called the `zine child pornography in writing and advocated boycotting the newsstand. Her letter touched off a heady dialog on censorship, culminating in a complaint filed with the cops by people from the Whatcom Crisis Center, an organization which serves abused women.
A detective went to the newsstand and advised Hjelsand and Stohl that the prosecutor was considering filing a criminal charge and suggested but did not order that they refrain from selling the `zine.
With this implied threat hanging in the air, the newsstand decided not to sell the magazine, opting instead for a statement of discontent. A stack of Answer Me!s, under six-foot chain, was placed on a table covered with a black linen cloth. The shrine got lots of publicity, which did not go down well with city authorities.
On Valentines Day, McEachran filed his charge. He made what we think was a reasonable request to Ira and Kristina. It was like, `Look, I just dont want this magazine in our town, so stop selling it. Never sell it again and remove this display, said one of the defense attorneys off the record.
He is a good prosecutor. This was his first tarnishment. I dont think he understood prior restraint or the First Amendment issues involved. Even though they had stopped selling it, they would not promise him that they would never sell it and they would not remove the display. So it was like "whose ego is bigger?" and neither party was going to back down, especially with the hype coming out of the media. McEachran felt he couldnt get out of it, not seeming to realize it was only going to get worse for him, said the attorney.
The entire affair played itself out as censorship stories frequently do. An obscure publication picked up by a handful of readers suddenly gains a wider audience through publicity. However, Answer Me! is not that obscure. Unknowingly, the Bellingham prosecutor chose to go after what is arguably the best `zine in the country. Jim Goad, a 1985 graduate of Temple University, knows how to turn a hot-fisted phrase and grab the reader.
In this subculture of pamphleteers, Goads Answer Me! has the status of The New Yorker. Probably the hottest `zine in America, opined Details. The greatest `zine on the planet, judged Seth Friedman, the editor of Factsheet 5, which reviews thousands of `zines. The most elegant document of equal opportunity hatred, outre journalism and precision rage Ive ever seen, hailed The San Francisco Bay-Guardian. The Village Voice recognized the attraction of its repulsive contents, but thought it desperately plumbs a predictable litany of topics and transgressions looking for new taboos to break, seeking fresh blood from the audidact.
Answer Me! appears once a year, with a print run of about 10,000 copies. Each issue highlights a single theme. Previous issues have dealt with suicide and serial killers; this years issue will focus on race. Goad recently signed a contract with Simon and Schuster for a book on white trash culture.
Goads morbid fascination with the lower depths is rooted in his childhood. He wrote the opening essay in Answer Me!, My Sick Mommy, an account of his mother, who enjoyed giving him enemas as a child and who rewarded him afterwards with a Bit O Honey candy bar as a reward for my anal endurance. When his father beat and whipped him, his mother wouldnt believe it. In the eighth grade, Goad and two other students out of 500 earned scholarships to an exclusive high school. His parents refused to let him go. `You were just, in our way of seeing it, not worthy of it, he says his mother told him.
Goad writes with anger and sarcasm, at times driving his point into the ground Mommy is a passive slit and gullible cunt. He is also a careful researcher and a stickler for details. When I asked him what pleased him most about his bungee-jumping samizdat, he did not mention content or the brouhaha in Bellingham. I challenge anybody to find a typo in Answer Me! he said. (And on the flip side, hasnt Tina Brown `zined out The New Yorker with all those O.J. stories and Gypsy Jokers in Spokane?)
`Zines, like genital piercing or putting fangs on your teeth, are easily misunderstood.
Few publish their rough trade on a regular schedule; most fly off the press when the `zinester gets around to it. This is the tabloid version of the news business in the slacker generations parallel culture; hastily produced broadsides which can be handwritten, photocopied and stapled or polished desktop wonders.
Access to computers and copy machines by `zinesters with low level administrative jobs in downtown skyscrapers lend a cache of criminality to the final product. Most are circulated in the `zinesters community, frequently dropped off in cafes and pizza joints next to the stacks of free alternative newspapers. Many charge a buck or two and get circulated through a national distributor. More than 8000 `zines are currently published in this country, 116 in Oregon and 288 in Washington, according to Factsheet 5.
The political content of `zines ranges across the board, though conspiracies are high on the agenda. Jim Goad shies away from labeling himself, other than to say hes a misanthrope.
While he mocks the feminists in the rape issue, he mocks their antagonists as well. In one story, after cataloging campus antics like the Antioch rules for consent, Carleton Colleges castration list of potential rapists and Dukes orange gotcha stickers slapped on the backs of male students by feminist activists, Goad takes on fraternity row. Over at the frat house, they cant hear all the theoretical clamor. Thats because Pearl Jam is cranked up too fucking loud. The Enemy Man, lost in an orgiastic landfill of empty beer cans, crushed pizza boxes, cheap speed, used rubbers and Cliffs Notes, are too drunk to care about sexual politics.
Apparently, this equal opportunity bashing was not perceived as such by Laura Bergstrom, the student whose letter to her school paper, The Western Front, oiled the wheels of censorship in Bellingham. But, to her credit, six months later, at the end of the school year, she had a change of heart. She told reporters in Bellingham that she had been bullied by the detective assigned to investigate the case, Mark Green, and she had come to respect Stohl and Hjelsands stand against censorship. Id like to apologize to them for not seeing what would happen. As the case unfolded, my sympathies went out to them even more and more and their situation is a million times worse than mine.
Then, in July, an official opinion favorable to the defense was rendered. A state Supreme Court commissioner denied a defense motion to review the case, set to go to trial that month. Although Commissioner Geoffrey Cooks ruling cleared the way for the trial to go forward in January, he said I strongly doubt that a properly instructed jury would find the publication obscene.
That unusual aside from the commissioner might have been a hint for the prosecution to pack it in, but McEachran decided to take it to the limit and lost when the jury announced its verdict.
The newsstands lead attorney, Breean Beggs, has filed a civil suit in federal court charging the prosecutor with violating his clients First Amendment rights. He wants the city of Bellingham to pay for the legal fees, some of which were picked up by the American Civil Liberties Union. He estimates the cost of the trial at about $200,000.
Ira Stohl said people have been popping by the newsstand offering their support ever since the shrine went up. Answer Me! is not the enemy. Rapists and child molesters are, he said.
Answer Me! publisher Jim Goad can be emailed at Goad2Hell@aol.com.
In addition, discussions about Answer Me! and other 'zines can be found on the alt.zines newsgroup.