Burn the foundation and all that it upholds: an antifascist review of “Tell Me I’m Worthless” by Alison Rumfitt

Three Way Fight


“The House spreads. Its arteries run throughout the country. Its lifeblood flows into Westminster, into Scotland Yard, into every village and every city. It flows into you, and into your mother. It keeps you alive. It makes you feel safe. Those same arteries tangle you up at night and make it hard for you to breathe. But come morning, you thank it for what it has done for you, and you sip from its golden cup, and kiss its perfect feet, and you know that all will be right in this godforsaken world as long as it is there to watch over you.”

—Alison Rumfitt, Tell Me I’m Worthless

Alison Rumfitt, Tell Me I’m Worthless
New York: Nightfire, 2023
272 pages; ISBN: 9781250866233

Book cover of Tell Me I'm Worthless

Review by Tucker

The first time I encountered Anti-Racist Action (ARA) and antifascist organizing was as a teenager at punk shows. I remember the small punk girl who talked about beating up nazis and my 13 year old self was amazed that someone small and not a man could do that. It would be more than a decade til I would find myself in my first face-to-face street confrontation with fascists. Since my teens and early 20’s, we have seen an emboldening and surfacing of fascist hate groups and politics in the US, as well as around the world. My friends and I, so used to dealing with cops and the state, had to learn how to engage in the three way fight, defending our towns from the far-right hate groups that came to terrorize marginalized communities while simultaneously resisting the state and its oppressive and repressive tactics. It has been crucial in our fights to understand that the state and the fascists are distinct enemies, both of which require a militant and uncompromising struggle. Unlike the liberals who turn to a violent and racist state to protect, or the unprincipled and dangerous tendencies that side with the far right in the name of “the working man,” it is imperative to understand that we must fight both the state AND fascism to their deaths.

Tell Me I’m Worthless is a deeply queer story about a haunted house, Albion (meaning white land, also a romantic and historical way to refer to Britain), which is the embodiment of colonial and fascist England. The very foundation of this historic haunted house is toxic and seeps into the walls through stains and haunted posters. We learn about the horrific things which have been done throughout time by the various inhabitants of this house, the colonial, imperial and fascistic violence that occurred within these walls, and these atrocities spread out to the present. No matter what is done to the house, the foundation is the same, and infects what is built upon it and those who live within it and breathe inside its walls:

Angles that indicate the building you are in is not even a building, that no human could have possibly thought of this when building it, that this house simply came into being from contact with the pure, violent terror that can only exist in the very worst examples of humanity. And that horror is transmitted through you, a little thing inside the heart of the place. It cuts its way into your body, or uses somebody else to cut its way into your body. I have a scar on my forehead to attest to that, and Ila has a scar on her stomach. And Hannah. Something happened to Hannah. The place, it worms into your brain and your heart. By the time I got out, I was different” (Rumfitt, 14).

Tell Me I’m Worthless is the story of 3 friends: Ila, Hannah and Alice, and their relationship to the house. Upon entering the house their relationships to each other are forever changed.

This book is not developing an analysis of fascism but is rather dealing with affect and ethics; how these ideologies play out on an emotional and ethical level—and what people do in fascism’s wake. 

“Let Tell Me I’m Worthless help us all be very clear: our
identities will not protect us from our own choices to turn towards
fascism, and we must all be on guard for the ways reactionary hateful
ideologies and authoritarianism emerge in the spaces we inhabit.”

Hannah, Alice and Ila have complicated and intimate relationships with one another and the various marginalized as well as oppressive identities they embody. Alice is a white trans woman who is complicit in racism and xenophobia. Ila is a Jewish-Pakistani child of immigrants who becomes a TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist). The third friend, Hannah, is a white cis straight woman who ultimately becomes a mutilated swastika stuck on the wall of the house, completely seduced by the fascism of Albion. Inside of the house the three friends turn on each other as the house speaks to them, filling them with racist, transphobic and xenophobic thoughts that they enact upon each other in violent, intimate and political ways. As the house attacks, the novel shows the way the path of least resistance will often be the path that marginalizes another, and is complacent if not outright actively violent toward the other. Here no identity is immune to the creeping tide of the hateful ideology and fascism, and this is an important nuance that Tell Me I’m Worthless breathes through its pages.

Traditional leftist narratives around fascism have often focused on an idealized figure of the fascist imaginary, a white male nazi, locating fascism solely within the scope of specific identities. This portrayal and understanding of fascism is somewhat a-historical as there is a long history of other identities that are neither white nor male flirting with and engaging fascism and advancing its deadly objectives. Certain currents within feminism have historically and continue this horrifying engagement of fascism (see Sophie Lewis and Asa Seresin’s “Fascist Feminism”) as well as various gay subcultures throughout history (see Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure). Currently we see fascism emerging in places outside of the white, straight male sphere (though certainly there as well) again as TERF feminist groups move to cement their alliances with white supremacists to further their bigoted and genocidal anti-trans ideologies; organizations such as “gays against groomers” emerge to further attack trans folks; and Black, Asian and Latino men are active in the Proud Boys and enacting white supremacist violence in the name of Western chauvinism, to name a few examples. 

The essentialist idea of fascism being sequestered to the sole domain of a certain group of white men leaves many surprised and fumbling when these dangerous ideologies turn up in other places. Let Tell Me I’m Worthless help us all be very clear: our identities will not protect us from our own choices to turn towards fascism, and we must all be on guard for the ways reactionary hateful ideologies and authoritarianism emerge in the spaces we inhabit. For the fascists, always, will be happy to have us collaborate in the extermination of our friends and communities.

Alice’s relationship to sex work is another point of great interest to me, and is one of several condemnations this novel makes against liberals and their politics. Through web camming, Alice engages with the transphobic and racist desires of her (presumably cis, white male) clients. She chooses to engage with scenarios that are cringe to read, however anyone who has done sex work will recognize that where one draws the line for the types of scenarios one will play out when negotiating with clients is an uncomfortable process at best. “But if they ask for it, when they send me money for the video, I make sure to include it. I’m not in a position to say no” (Rumfitt, 64).

While I do not take a strong ethical position on what people choose to engage with in the bedroom or the dungeon, I do think what taboos and societal horrors we are willing to engage in the sexual sphere is a complicated affair. Liberal conceptions of sex work posit us, the workers, as either the liberated heroines or the exploited victims, however here yet again the novel complicates and destroys fantasies of the purity of these categories. Fascism creeps into desire, and into the lives of sex workers who are paid to engage these desires. The choices Alice makes to entertain her client’s fantasies are not likable or easy to read. This is her job and how she makes her money. What happens when work and desire merge? The sex industry is a complicated place with no simple narrative. Often an overtly racist and sexist industry, where many workers market ourselves in ways that play off of the fetishization of our identities. Sex workers, as a stigmatized and criminalized work force, face a three way fight of our own, against the violence of Johns and SWERFs (Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminists), as well as the violence of the state and incarceration. In the novel, Alice’s clients’ desire to be made to feel worthless and humiliated in their fantasy for a forced feminization or queer encounter later haunts us in a passage when Alice is being fucked by her TERF ex and demands “tell me i’m worthless.” There is no heroine/victim dichotomy here, as within the entire novel. The characters are complex and unlikeable, yet we know them. I have met Alice, Ila. I bet you have, too.

Finally, there is the haunted Morrissey poster, perhaps one of my favorite features of the book. He hangs on the wall of Alice’s room with his eyes blacked out and haunts Alice and the space, as well as the women she brings home. The poster was meant to cover the spot on the wall where a fascist stain always seems to protrude, yet the poster itself is racist, attacking with its nauseating stance of “England for the English.” I can remember the Smiths playing on the tape deck at a punk house I lived at in 2011. How does fascism creeps in if we are not on guard against it and its blood running through the foundation? What happens when we allow it in in small ways? Does it matter what one band member said? Does it cover the stain on the wall? Does it allow it to fester and grow?

Alice is entirely undone, but she tried to lift herself up, her insides sliding out around her. Look at me, she says. This is the most honest I have ever been with anybody. This. My body. My insides. I’m bearing it all. I did this for you, Ila. Not for Hannah. I don’t care about Hannah anymore. She was a victim of this ideology that corrodes our lives. I’m talking about me and you, Ila, you and I, we were best friends, we loved each other, and now we hate each other, and I did this because I do still care about you, because I want you to like me” (Rumfitt, 251).

In the end, the friends must face the house (i.e., Britain, fascism, white supremacy and nativism), and stand together in solidarity against all that the house stands for. They must confront the fascism within its walls and hear the hate that it spews while not allowing it to tear them apart. In the end, solidarity wins.

This visceral and haunting narrative shows us the ways fascism seeps into our relationships, how no identity is immune to its creeping, and how while the foundations of (imperial, colonial) societies are built upon violent and oppressive histories and ideologies nothing built on top will ever heal what lays beneath. The foundation itself must be destroyed. This novel is an antifascist argument against reformist and liberal politics, and reminds us that the only way to win is through solidarity and the destruction of it all. Tell Me I’m Worthless makes the reader feel the pain and horror of fascism in the most extreme and interpersonal as well as societal sense, and reminds us of the small and large ways it can infiltrate our lives and undermine solidarity. While much antifascist and anti-authoritarian writing focuses on the theory and strategy of fighting fascism, this book describes the embodied and emotional horror of life within it. It crawls through one’s skin. It sits uncomfortably below the surface. A true haunting.

Works referenced:

Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011.

Lewis, Sophie, and Asa Seresin. “Fascist Feminism: A Dialogue,” Transgender Studies Quarterly, vol. 9, issue 3 (1 August, 2022): 463-479.

Rumfitt, Alison. Tell Me I’m Worthless. New York: Nightfire (Tor Publishing Group), 2023.

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