We Should All Be Reading Cookie Mueller

A new edition of 'Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black' reveals a singular talent

NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 1989: Novelist and actress Cookie Mueller poses for a February 1989 portrait n N...
Bob Berg/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Annie Geng

Who Cookie Mueller was depends on who you ask. I'll start with one of her own descriptions: "Clothing designer, racehorse hot walker, drug dealer, go-go dancer, underground film actress (otherwise known as independent feature actress), theater actress, playwright, theater director, performance artist, house cleaner, fish packer, credit clerk, barmaid, sailor, high seas cook, film script doctor, herbal therapist, unwed welfare mother, film extra, leg model, watercolorist, and briefly as a bar mitzvah entertainer, although I’m not even Jewish.”

To the writer Gary Indiana, Cookie Mueller was freedom. He first saw Cookie at a play in New York City in the eighties, and then whispered to his friend: “She is the one.” The two became collaborators: Cookie posed as several of his boyfriends for an art show alongside Kathy Acker at the Mudd Club, and for "years," Indiana wrote plays “only for Cookie." At her behest, he wrote The Roman Polanski Story in one night. “The freedom that she had about herself, that extraordinary freedom,” Indiana said of the downtown legend in her biography, Edgewise. “I loved it so much, I craved it so much.”

To the filmmaker John Waters, Cookie was "a better writer than she was an actress, and I think she would have been the first to say that." She had, in fact, always been a writer, beginning to write at the age of six and since, "never stopp[ing] completely." At the age of 10 — in hopes of being the youngest novelist alive — Cookie wrote her first novel, dressed it up in saran wrap and cardboard, and placed it on the shelves of her local library. As a teenager in Baltimore, Cookie wrote poetry and liked to lay flowers at the graveyard of her literary idol, Edgar Allen Poe. While living in New York City during the seventies, Cookie wrote art reviews for Details magazine, pseudo-medical advice for the East Village Eye, and her own personal writing, compiled and published by Semiotext(e) in 1990. Last month, Semiotext(e) released a new edition of Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black, now with new stories.

Walking Through Clear Water includes Cookie’s largely autobiographical stories, fiction, columns, and essays, all written in a forward, punchy manner. Her stories, Cookie said herself, are intended for “people with short attention spans.” We begin in sleepy suburban Baltimore, where Dorothy Mueller — although everyone called her Cookie “before [she] could walk” — is fifteen and restless. “I had two lovers and I was not ashamed,” she begins. Just as shame is alien to her, Cookie feels "alien" to everyone else, detailed in “Alien—1965." Against the wishes of her flummoxed parents, Cookie is always disappearing — first for the weekends, and then indefinitely. “I was always leaving,” she writes.

While her stories are ordered chronologically, Cookie’s own path is anything but orderly. She moves to Provincetown and New York City, with sojourns in California, Germany, and Italy. Turn the page and Cookie is sauntering down Haight Street, raising pigs on a farm in York, or crashing cars with Divine. She is nearly recruited by the Manson family, misguidedly becomes an accomplice to grand larceny, and accidentally summons the son of Beezelbub. Her stories unfurl so madly, at such a thunderous velocity, that new stories begin before old ones have even finished. “British Columbia—1972” opens with the line: “I accidentally burned a friend’s house to the ground once,” and ends with: “But that’s a whole other story.”

The girls of her stories want to feel like women; at best, they are aging girls.

The throes of Cookie’s emotions, acutely felt, structure the ricochet of adventure in these stories. In 1983, heartbreak catapults Cookie out of New York. She travels to New Orleans in hopes of soothing her aching heart through voodoo magic. When that doesn’t work, Cookie finds herself on a plane to Naples, captivated by an Italian saying she heard: “See Naples and die." She doesn't "know exactly what it meant, but it sounded good.” In Italy, Cookie stumbles upon a trio of strangers who take her to Capri, then Positano. There, Cookie meets the man she would marry: the artist Vittorio Scarpati, to whom she wrote a glimmering paean in the last months of her life: “I’ve discovered in bold black-and-white print, it’s hard to express one’s love, a love that has always been silently understood.”

Cookie, interestingly, is hardly sentimental in her writing — only in winks. She writes mostly outside the stultifying, steamy lurch of her feelings, solely electrified by her present moment. In her actual life, friends remembered Cookie as more unwieldy. “She was very sweet and absolutely crazy. And scattered,” said the painter Pat Burgee in Edgewise. And said the filmmaker John Heys: “Cookie cried very easily, was very sensitive.” That very sensitivity blossoms in her fiction, unveiling an imagination so surreal, so tender. In her first person, Cookie is daring and lucid. But in her third person, Cookie, scattered among her protagonists, is strange and dreamy. She writes of girls who lose their toes overnight, who bury their mothers and plant sunflowers in lieu, and who grieve the injustice of a world that will seemingly never end. The girls of her stories want to feel like women; at best, they are aging girls. They move not at their own will, but at the will of their world: currents, lakes, like in “The Simplest Thing”:

Floating on Confidence Lake, on a queen sized inflatable rubber pancake kind of thing, was Molly, the woman who lately had been thinking of herself as a joke. She almost was, but in this setting who was around to laugh?

Molly dreams and fears. She dreams that the trees around the lake, so lithe and ethereal as to resemble women, whisper to her. She fears the endless depths of the water beneath her, broodingly dark. Molly argues with a screaming tree, only to realize that the tree’s “sad, dried up” face is not so much unlike her own. Most of all, Molly is convinced she must be both the “smallest thing she could imagine,” and the “biggest joke in the world.”

An occasional cynicism, most raw in her essays and criticism, thrums beneath Cookie's words. In “Fleeting Happiness,” Cookie writes that happiness is the myth we need to make living more bearable. Suppose we desire money, sex, love, power—but what then? Achieving all that we desire won't make us happy: “The pitiable human being will still always want something else. It’s human nature.” Cookie ends irresolutely. Maybe, “we are all doomed to be jealous and resentful creatures.” And maybe, “we’re all just quixotic, and haunted, and burdened.”

Still, Cookie knew better than most. Again, when has Cookie ended where she began? Life resigned to its “truth” would be dull. Gravity might be a “burden,” and “being alive is certainly an oppressive job,” Cookie begins, but she continues: We have “love, philosophy, religion, creativity, culture,” and greatest of all, “humor, the anti-gravity gear we all need.” Cruelty and tragedy are the ordinary facts of living. We have little reason to dwell; more to laugh.

Unsurprisingly, Cookie is hilarious throughout Walking Through Clear Water. In her medical advice column, “Ask Dr. Mueller,” Cookie — who often submitted questions to herself to answer — is asked: “Do people really die of a broken heart? Does love kill?” To which Cookie replies: All the time. The human body is at its “maximum health peak” when in love, and unrequited love plainly sucks. But: Have you tried brewer’s yeast?


Chris Kraus, the editor of the Native Agents imprint for Semiotext(e), published Walking Through Clear Water shortly after Cookie's death from AIDS-related complications in 1989. Kraus also wrote a phenomenology of the female alien in Aliens & Anorexia. Aliens, for Kraus, transcended themselves. They were possessed by the “panic of altruism,” pained by the “collapse of beauty,” intent on escaping themselves for something greater: the collective, the sublime. Sadness, "connected to all the suffering in the world," ate away at their bodies. Aliens, like Simone Weil and Ulrike Meinhof, died young. So too did Cookie, at the age of 40.

Aliens & Anorexia is an argument to live with an idealism — not merely political, but artistic and emotional — that supersedes the body, for a life lived past the chains of corporeality. By the time Scarpati, her husband, passed away from AIDS, Cookie had already been hospitalized, soberly aware of what would come. The filmmaker Amos Poe remembers weeping at Scarpati's funeral, only to be comforted by Cookie herself. “Don’t worry,” Poe recalled Cookie telling him in Edgewise. “It’s not about the body. It’s about the soul.” She passed away weeks later.

At the end of “The Simplest Thing,” Molly realizes:

She was in the soup, same as all the people, same as the frogs, same as the chicken salad in the refrigerator in the cottage across Confidence Lake.
Ahhh, no, she wasn’t a nervous twit or a joke, or else she was both of those things magnified. She was a mass mess spaghetti jumble of nerves and the biggest joke in the world. Both. But neither. All. She was everything and everything made sense…
She felt suddenly a fool. Everything was so simple it was hardly thinkable.

In a final letter, Cookie wrote that those dying of AIDS in the late eighties were the very same people who "hated and scorned pettiness, intolerance, bigotry, mediocrity, ugliness, and spiritual myopia… the blindness that makes life hollow and insipid." They were the people who tried to make us "see." This is what we see through Cookie: that sometimes you do accidentally burn your friend's house to the ground, that brewer's yeast heals what voodoo magic cannot, that happiness is fraught, and that gravity is so, so painful — but these are the naked premises of life. With enough glamor and curiosity, life can be lived outside the body; through the soul, even. Almost like a true alien, or at the very least, the greatest of fools.

Annie Geng is a writer based in New York.