In Remembrance of Allan G. Johnson, 1946-2017

Several years ago I was on an NYC subway and my friend told me to listen to this speech he had on his primitive, first-generation iPhone. We listened together, one earbud in each of our ears, as an older white dude spoke about systems of privilege and oppression. At the time, I didn’t fully understand what those terms meant, but this guy just started laying out the concepts piece by piece, slowly, carefully, deliberately. He used an analogy about the board game Monopoly that I still think is one of the most compelling arguments to help folks understand how social systems work, not just theoretically, but how they concretely impact our lives. I didn’t know it then, but this moment changed the course of my life forever. I voraciously read and listened to everything I could from this man.

I woke up on New Year’s Day to the news that Allan G. Johnson, age 71, had passed away on Christmas Eve surrounded by friends and loved ones. Allan was a sociologist, a writer, a novelist, an educator, and an advocate to end violence against women. I wish that his book The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy was required reading for everyone. I often have several copies on my bookshelf so I can hand them out to friends and colleagues.

I’ve never met Allan in person, although we did talk and correspond. I initially reached out to him because I was frustrated that his website was so ugly; I wanted to send people links to his articles and speeches but I was afraid folks wouldn’t take work seriously on a website that looked so makeshift. So I sent him an email asking if I could build him a new site and, much to my delight, he agreed. I remember hearing his voice on the phone and feeling a little starstruck because I had listened to his speeches many times over. We worked on building his site into a resource people could use and share. He thanked me by sending me copies of each of his books. I remember specifically asking him not to bother signing them. “I think autographs are stupid,” I said. I was a dumb kid. I regret that now.

He soon began writing novels as well, which took the deep concerns of his existing work and wove them into fiction. His debut novel, The First Thing and the Last, was utterly brilliant. I’d never read a fictional account of surviving domestic violence as brutal and honest and compassionate as this one. He continued to write other novels, and it wasn’t until I learned of his passing that I found out he’d also written a memoir, which I will be reading immediately.

It wasn’t often but we would occasionally exchange emails; he’d ask about some change on his website, I asked him to look over the occasional tropes script. When the third edition of The Gender Knot was being published, he asked me to write a few words in support of the book and I couldn’t have been more honored. I wrote:

“The Gender Knot is a book that never leaves my side, intellectually at least. Since I was first introduced to Allan Johnson’s work, this text has served as a faithful companion to my personal and professional growth. Johnson lays out how patriarchy, as a social system, interacts with all of us, in one of the most accessibly written books on the topic. He proficiently explains how this damaging system hurts people of all genders, and gently guides us away from reactionary feelings of guilt and towards those of social responsibility. The Gender Knot is an invaluable and timeless resource for everyone who cares about gender equality.”

Allan dedicated his life to bringing a knowledge of systems of privilege and oppression beyond the realm of academia, making people aware of their effects on our lives so that we are better able to work to change individual behaviour and challenge institutional oppression. His work changed my life, as I’m sure it did the lives of many others. With no exaggeration at all, I can say that Feminist Frequency would not exist without his influence.

They say you should never meet your heroes, and in most circumstances I fully agree with this sentiment, but I feel so very honored to have met this man. Allan G. Johnson’s passing is a terrible loss, but I know that his vital work will live on in so many who had their eyes opened by his wonderful books, talks and trainings, and I’ll forever be grateful for the moment I first heard his voice on that subway all those years ago.