Kim Chernin, who lived to write, dies at 80

David Briggs
Kim Chernin, right, and her wife, Renate Stendhal, at a reading and book signing for "Lesbian Marriage: A Sex Survival Kit" in 2014 at the Mesa Refuge, in Point Reyes Station.   

Kim Chernin, a prolific author who explored the modern woman’s search for self-identity, died on Dec. 17 of Covid-19. She was 80 years old.

Kim radiated a childlike openness, without judgment or fear. Her embracing attitude made her love others, and be loved, wherever she went. She lived the twilight of her life overlooking the wetlands outside Point Reyes Station with her wife, Renate Stendhal. Fed up with the self-marketing demands of publishing, she decided to no longer sell her work and wrote only for her own enjoyment. After a life as a fireball—she was prone to mood swings and could churn out a book in six weeks—Kim attained balance in the countryside. She would write for a few hours every morning, and the rest of the day was free to read, reflect in nature and lie in the garden.

“About five years ago, she said she had no desire or longing left,” Renate said. “She told me, ‘I feel completely fulfilled in my life. I feel just absolutely complete.’”

Kim was born on May 7, 1940, in the Bronx. Her parents, Paul Kusnitz and Rose Chernin, were Russian-born Jews and devoted Marxists. Kim attended Communist Party rallies from her stroller. When she was 4, her teenage sister Nina died from cancer, a loss that profoundly impacted the family. They moved to the Crenshaw neighborhood in central Los Angeles, and Rose began working as an organizer there, championing worker and housing rights.

Kim wrestled with her relationship with Rose, battling between the desire to uphold or rebel against her mother’s heroic ideals, according to a biography written for her in the “Encyclopedia of Jewish Women.” On the one hand, Kim was proud of her mother’s dedication to the people, but she also argued with her over her ideology. Kim left home at 18 and began to identify as a poet, a mystic and an interpreter of women’s psychological experiences. 

Kim studied English at the University of California, Berkeley, where she met her first husband, David Netboy. David’s father owned a rundown ranch house on Pierce Point, and the couple stayed on the land, beginning Kim’s lifelong infatuation with the area. She and David eventually moved to England then Ireland and had her only daughter, Larissa Chernin, who lives in Peru as an artist and shamanic practitioner. Kim and David divorced, and she married a second time, to Robert Cantor.

Her first book, “The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness,” took seven years to write and was rejected by 13 publishers before it was bought in 1980. The book quickly sold out, and Kim became a popular speaker on college campuses. She talked about anorexia and bulimia, disorders that were seeing emerging attention, and she posed the idea that our culture’s fear of women was directed against women’s bodies.

She wrote, “A woman obsessed with the size of her appetite, wishing to control her hungers and urges, may be expressing the fact that she has been taught to regard her emotional life, her passions and ‘appetites,’ as dangerous, requiring control and careful monitoring. A woman obsessed with the reduction of her flesh may be revealing the fact that she is alienated from a natural source of female power and has not been allowed to develop a reverential feeling for her body.”

Kim continued to explore hunger, mental health and a daughter’s relationship with her mother in two more books published in the ‘80s. Later in life, she would reckon with this trilogy, fearing the negative health impacts of obesity.

Kim tackled heavy subjects throughout her career, always from a place of compassion. She relied on both expertise, with a master’s degree in psychology, and personal experience, which she leaned on even in her fiction. Her memoirs explored her relationship with her mother and  father, her Jewish identity and sexuality.

Kim met Renate, a German woman, at a café in Paris that they both frequented. As writers, editors and psychotherapists, they had met their match. They exchanged letters and gave feedback on each other’s work before beginning a 35-year partnership that yielded three books and countless thought-provoking discussions. 

Kim and Renate avoided marriage for most of their partnership, feeling that it was too conventional an institution. But as same-sex marriage became legalized, the couple decided that marriage could be less conventional as it expands to a new community. They tied the knot in 2013 after 28 years together, and nothing changed in their relationship.

Kim and Renate’s three books together reflect different approaches. The first, “Sex and Other Sacred Games,” was written through the voices of two imaginary characters that were based on themselves at the beginning of their relationship. Kim wrote for her character, and then would send the text to Renate, who would respond as the other. The second book, about an opera singer Kim loved, “Cecilia Bartoli: The Passion of Song,” was split into two: Kim wrote about Cecilia’s voice and Renate analyzed her performances. 

The third book, “Lesbian Marriage: A Sex Survival Kit,” was written hand-in-hand on a beach in Maui. The book offers a number of suggestions for keeping sex healthy: Be honest but remember that honesty doesn’t have to be brutal; it can be tender, too. Listen. Unplug your electronics. Fantasize, and share your fantasies. Don’t let culture define what turns you on, and discard the notion that orgasm is the only authentic sign of sexual pleasure.

While living in Berkeley in the ‘90s, Kim began to feel increasingly out of place in the publishing industry, which prioritized books with mass appeal. She launched a publishing collective with a dozen women writer friends, but cultural shifts and financial pressures led the project to fold after a few years. Kim stopped writing for the publishing world altogether, and instead sent her later work to an archive at the Harvard Library. The collection contains over 30 file boxes.

Early in their relationship, Renate was aware of what Point Reyes meant to Kim, and when they moved to the United States, Renate also fell in love. “This little piece of the earth had a charm and spiritual power and beauty of nature that was like nothing else I had seen in America,” Renate said.

So, seeking to simplify, the couple moved from Berkeley to a house at the end of B Street in 2004. They converted the garage into an office space and added windows that overlooked the cow pastures, which were later transformed into wetlands. Kim collected hydrangeas in the garden, and they enjoyed seasonal concerts of frogs.

In West Marin, Kim wrote “My First Year in the Country.” The book recounts her adjustment from urban to rural life. She writes mindfully about trips to clear her head at Millerton Point, at the Vedanta Retreat and on rocks near her house where the land slopes into the bay. The story follows her quest to find the perfect horse, but not without making a fool of herself along the way. Kim is lectured in line at the Bovine Bakery, at the Palace Market and outside Toby’s about wanting a young horse, despite the fact that she hadn’t ridden one since childhood. The townsfolk are quick to chime in about which boots she should buy and what type of horse she should get instead. She eventually learned her lesson.

“When I had to go into the village I kept my mouth shut,” she wrote. “The more you blather about your desires the less likely you are to see them through; the more you listen to advice, the less likely you are to cleave to your convictions. I didn’t mean to be ungrateful to my village, but I had something to accomplish and I knew I could, although why I knew or how I could I couldn’t say.”

Kim worked as a writing coach and a counselor in Point Reyes. But as an introvert, she spent much of her time alone, buried in thought and writing with speed, Renate said. She penned a spiritual tale about her deceased sister, a story about growing up in a Black neighborhood and hundreds of mystical poems. She confronted her uncritical support of Israel and her transition from heterosexual to lesbian relationships. Her last novel, which she left almost finished, tells the story of a family who studies the Bible and attempts to time travel to the time of Jesus Christ to verify the gospel’s truth.

“She was a born and to-the-bone writer and not necessarily writing for this living audience, but writing because she had something to say and needed to say it,” Renate said. “That artistic impulse is overwhelming and lasted to her last moment of capacity.”

Kim suffered a surprise stroke last spring that took away her ability to communicate. She could still read books, watch ballet and listen to opera, but she could no longer say what she was thinking. Renate relied on mind-reading and repeated questions to make sense of life with her partner in a new way. The couple participated in a research study on aphasia, and Kim said she was convinced that her language would come back one day.

This winter, Kim broke her hip. She was sent to a rehabilitation facility for two weeks to regain movement, but before she could leave, the facility suffered a Covid-19 outbreak that killed multiple patients. Kim had the disease for three days without breathing difficulty, but then her oxygen levels began to plummet. She was taken to the hospital, and died an hour later.