My dear friend Allan Johnson, an exquisite human being who lived a life with integrity as his north star, died on Christmas eve. We’d met many years ago after I’d read the galleys of his riveting first novel, The First Thing and The Last, an achingly candid story of a woman who had survived domestic violence, and a crone who nurtured her healing. (We ran an excerpt in the magazine.) Our friendship belied definition. There was a closeness we felt with one another that the term “brother” would only hint at. If I’d described Allan as a mentor, he likely would have demurred. Best I can come up with is we recognized in each other our humanness, occupying a place beyond gender.
Writing these words only weeks after he died, I feel him guiding my fingers across the keyboard as I journey on in our relationship with only one of us here in a corporal body. It’s possible that others who only know—or will know—Allan through reading his books or listening to his recorded talks about race, class and gender (and their overlapping connections) may feel as I do, that he is a life guide. In the last paragraph of his classic work, The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy, Allan wrote:
“The human capacity to choose how to participate in the world empowers all of us to pass along something different than what’s been passed on to us. With each strand of the patriarchal gender knot that we help to unravel, we don’t act simply for ourselves.
We join a process of creative resistance to oppression that’s been unfolding for thousands of years. We become part of the long tradition of people who have dared to make a difference—to look at things as they are, to imagine something better, and to plant seeds of change in themselves, in others, and in the world.”
May we heed his words.
What follows are excerpts from his obituary, and tributes from those who valued his work and life.
Allan Johnson, Noted Sociologist, Novelist, at 71
Noted sociologist and novelist Allan G. Johnson, an influential figure in the profeminist men’s movement and the broader progressive movements for social justice, died on December 24 at his home in Canton, Connecticut, surrounded by family and friends. He was 71.
Author both of nonfiction books and novels, his work coupled keen analysis with engaging, accessible writing in books addressing gender, race, and class. Best known among them are The Gender Knot, and Privilege, Power, and Difference.
“Allan was passionately committed to ending men’s violence against women, which is how I was initially drawn to his work, and to him,” said the author and cultural critic Jackson Katz. “He made a major contribution to our theoretical and practical understanding of how men—especially white men—can and should play a role in the struggles for gender, racial and economic justice.” Paula Rothenberg, editor of Race, Class, and Gender in the United States, said by unraveling society’s patriarchal legacy, The Gender Knot was “one of the best, most readable, and most comprehensive accounts of patriarchy that is available in print.”
While a professor of sociology at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, he began a lifelong commitment to understanding the fundamental nature of social life and systems of oppression and privilege, including how and why systems of privilege are created and maintained by society.
The issue that first drew him to these problems was men’s violence against women. In the late 1970s, he began volunteering at the Rape Crisis Service in Hartford, Conn. He developed an undergraduate course on the sociology of gender to explore the structure and culture of patriarchal systems and male privilege. A consultant with the National Center for the Prevention of Rape, he served on the board of the Connecticut Coalition against Domestic Violence, as well as testifying before the state judiciary committee on laws to protect the rights of sexual assault victims.
His first novel, The First Thing and the Last, was published in 2010 after meeting with considerable resistance from mainstream publishers because of its realistic portrayal of domestic violence. Publishers Weekly recognized it as a notable debut work of fiction. Nothing Left to Lose, his second novel, was published the following year and revolved around an American family in crisis during the Vietnam War. Not from Here was his last book, a memoir published in 2015 that explored the meaning of being white in North America.
“He was a man of integrity and depth of soul,” said Nora Jamieson, his life partner of 37 years, “who carried and wrote of suffering, creating exquisite beauty that pierced the heart. More than anything, Allan wanted to walk the path of a real human being.”
“His Work Changed My Life”
By Anita Sarkeesian
I woke up on New Year’s Day to the news that Allan Johnson had died on Christmas Eve. A sociologist, writer, novelist, educator, and advocate to end violence against women, I wish 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’d never met Allan in person, although we did talk and correspond. I initially reached out to him because I was frustrated that his website (www.agjohnson.us) 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, which took the deep concerns of his existing work and wove them into fiction. His debut novel, The First Thing and the Last, is brilliant. I’d never read a fictional account of surviving domestic violen ce 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, Not from Here.
We would occasionally exchange emails. When the third edition of The Gender Knot was being published, he asked me to write a few words in support of the book. 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 behavior and challenge institutional oppression. His work changed my life, as I’m sure it did the lives of many others. With no exaggeration, 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 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.
Anita Sarkeesian is a media critic and founder–executive director of Feminist Frequency, an organization exploring representations of women in pop culture narratives.
Colleague, Comrade, Role Model
Allan Johnson was a friend, colleague, comrade and role model. A fellow sociologist, he and I knew each other for more than 20 years. I greatly admired his work, especially The Gender Knot, which was one of the more careful and accessible books to help people explain the dynamics of gender and gender inequality.
When the book was first published, here is what I wrote:
“As any knitter will tell you, the way to untangle a knot is not to pull hard on one end, but gently shake the entire skein until all the threads are loosened. In this book, Allan Johnson gently and patiently shakes the patriarchal knot until each of the constituent threads becomes analytically clear. In doing so, he gives men a way to be part of unraveling that oppressive knot, rather than simply tugging defensively on their end.”
What I remember most is Allan’s patience—as a writer, reader and thinker. He was quiet, thoughtful and methodical in both prose and polemic. He wanted to render ideas so accessible that anyone could understand them, because he knew that if they understood how patriarchy worked, they’d support feminist efforts to dismantle it.
His was a major voice among profeminist men, and I will miss him very much.
An Unraveler of Knots
When I first read Allan’s book The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy, I knew it was going to change lives. Including mine. The book is still one of the best, most readable sociological analyses of gender we have. I used it for years in my undergraduate gender course, and I’ve recommended it to generations of graduate students studying inequality.
One of the great insights in the book is that patriarchy is not an either-or condition but a variable one. Societies are patriarchal, Allan says, to the extent that they are male-dominated, male-identified, and male-centered. That simple definition has the profound effect of making patriarchy visible and amenable to analysis.
Allan could also explain, as well as any sociologist ever has, how self and society are intertwined. In The Gender Knot he shows us how gender and patriarchy don’t just exist “out there” in the world, apart from us. They exist no less inside of us and because of us—because of what we think, feel, and do as social beings.
In 2001, Allan gave a workshop at a symposium I had organized on teaching about inequality. During the session, a colleague remarked to Allan, for reasons I don’t recall, on the need for more research about inequality. Most sociologists would have bowed to academic convention and said that yes, of course more research is needed. Allan didn’t. He said that what we needed was to do a better job of teaching what we already knew. Allan put that principle into practice. Which is why his work has made a difference and will continue to do so.