‘Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black’ follows the iconic creative on her almost-unbelievable exploits, from her time as a Dreamlander, to her encounter with the Manson girls
Cookie Mueller was a writer whose singular voice blended wry humor, astute observations, and a penchant for finding humanity everywhere she went. Last week, Semiotext(e) reissued the most complete collection of Mueller’s writing, Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black.
The reissue is a gift to Mueller’s longtime fans who have hungrily consumed every piece of her published writing to date, as well as newcomers looking for an entry point into her vast oeuvre. In an era dominated by the cult of personality that is often so hyper-curated it becomes sterile, Mueller’s refreshingly gritty and uncensored approach to documenting her life is more relevant than ever. “I started writing when I was six and have never stopped completely,” she writes.
The original version was published as a memoir in 1990 after Mueller died of AIDS-related complications, but subsequently fell out of print and became a hard-sought cult classic. The new edition of Walking Through Clear Water is almost three times the size of the original, and includes unpublished work. Divided up by the places she lived—Baltimore, Provincetown, and New York—the book chronicles Mueller’s life, her fiction, and the impact of her columns “Ask Dr. Mueller” and “Art and About.”
With her signature thick black winged eyeliner, messy dyed-blonde hair, and a gothic-meets-bohemian style, Mueller was an unconventional beauty and a muse to the likes of Nan Goldin, David Armstrong, and John Waters. Words like icon and It Girl are often used when describing Mueller. It only makes sense: She was a writer, underground actress, fashion designer, go-go dancer, theater director, performance artist, and held numerous odd jobs along the way.
No matter what she was doing, Mueller recorded her life with an original combination of optimism and nihilism. She recollects harrowing experiences—accidentally burning a house down, surviving a car crash, and the time she was abducted and raped while hitchhiking with her two friends—with the same aplomb she uses to describe lighthearted events, like a summer spent tattooing beachgoers in Provincetown, or falling in love in Italy.
“‘There are easier places to live,’ I used to tell myself in the mornings as I brought the toothbrush to my teeth and there was a cockroach hugging the brush, licking the toothpaste. Now I find myself admiring these roaches for their bold New York attitude.”
Her essays are also full of fun facts about her life: She met John Waters after she attended a screening for his film Mondo Trasho at a local bingo house, where she won a raffle for dinner with the director and a screen test. “I discovered John Waters and he discovered me,” she writes. Waters got the name for his film Female Trouble from Mueller’s response when he visited her in the hospital and asked her what was wrong with her.
Before she joined the cast of Waters’ Dreamlanders (the name for recurring cast members of his films), and later New York’s downtown art scene, Mueller’s story began in the suburbs of Baltimore. She was born there in 1949, and grew up a self-proclaimed “alien” among her parents and childhood friends: an otherworldly child, destined to explore the world. “I was always leaving,” she writes early on. “It’s natural. It’s a biological urge. Like birds testing their wings. I can’t help myself.”
When she was 18, Mueller moved to San Francisco. There, she spent drug-fueled days bumping shoulders with the likes of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, and going on adventures that seem almost too insane to be true, as if Hunter S. Thompson had written Joan Didion’s seminal essay collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
In what is only the beginning of a wild day, she meets the Manson girls (and is minutes from meeting Charles himself) describing them as “ducks quacking over corn” before hopping on a bus to accompany the Grateful Dead to a show at San Quentin. Mueller took refuge in San Francisco while she waited for the world to fall apart. When it didn’t, she left.
The title of the collection comes from a story Mueller wrote about a time she went hitchhiking with a friend. They caught rides with colorful strangers, including a well-polished man who turned out to be on a breaking and entering spree. When Mueller and her friend finally stumble out of a car into the darkness of night, she observes that “the sky was black like cotton batting that enveloped us in a way that felt like walking through clear water in a pool painted black.”
Mueller’s path eventually led her to New York, where she found endless inspiration in the bustling city streets and the characters that inhabited them. “‘There are easier places to live,’ I used to tell myself in the mornings as I brought the toothbrush to my teeth and there was a cockroach hugging the brush, licking the toothpaste. Now I find myself admiring these roaches for their bold New York attitude,” she proclaims.
By the time the collection arrives at Mueller’s fiction, what’s true and what isn’t seems irrelevant. For Mueller, truth was in permanent parentheses. Mueller explores how to handle loss in “Valerie Losing 2,” a story about a woman who woke up one day to find one of her toes was mysteriously missing.
“After months of thinking the loss over very carefully she came to know why she had lost this part of her body,” she writes. “In the last fifteen years she had lost a lot, beginning with her virginity. She had lost two husbands, countless girlfriends, passports, bank books, wallets, one apartment, plants, a car, a dog, valuable jewelry; there were so many things. This was nothing new, only slightly different. She had lost so much it was just something else to mourn over for a bit. She took it in stride. There is a great art to handling losses with nonchalance.”
“You have to have opinions while looking for art or searching out the other forms of divinity in daily life.”
Mueller’s advice column, written for the East Village Eye, gives a mix of earnest and absurd advice from topics such as quitting smoking, to psychic surgeons, to aphrodisiacs. Some of her more questionable advice provides insight into a time when the AIDS crisis was beginning to sweep New York, and people were still trying to figure out what to make of it. “Don’t worry about AIDs for God’s sake… If you don’t have it now, you won’t get it. By now we’ve all been in some form of contact with it… Not everybody gets it, only those predisposed to it,” she tells one reader.
In her art review column for Details, the independent downtown culture magazine, Mueller didn’t review art as much as she lamented about the state of the art world, and waxed poetic whenever she was moved to do so. “You have to have opinions while looking for art or searching out the other forms of divinity in daily life,” she succinctly says in her May 1987 essay as she rereads her most recent column.
Mueller’s ability to lambast certain cultural ailments while upholding an enthusiasm and love for art is refreshing in today’s post-cancel culture climate, where critics often bite their tongues or hold back in fear of being deemed too harsh or politically incorrect. “All I do is bitch, bitch, bitch,” she proudly proclaims.
She was also prophetic. She featured Jean-Michel Basquiat in her very first column for the magazine, and accurately predicted that one day the East Village art scene would be studied in art history classes.
Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black ends with Mueller’s writings about her childhood, paired with a eulogy to the many friends she lost to AIDS. Her world spins with each essay, only finally coming to a halt when there are no more pages left.
Throughout her brief but remarkable life, Mueller adopted the spirit of wherever she set foot with the keen observation of an anthropologist minus the studied distance. She observed up close in the eye of the storm. Mueller was not only the wide-eyed protagonist, she was also the author. She wove fantastical tales with a dark humor and an unwavering lust for life. “Believing that life will someday be wonderful isn’t a bad thing, in fact it is absolutely necessary. To know the truth—life is hard, and then you die—isn’t a very comfortable thing to live with,” she writes.