Reviewed by Bonny Finberg
The phenomenon of the Sixties did not arrive via Zeus’s head, pre-fab with a face and a name. It was the frisson created between dissidents and revolutionary thinkers, from both the political and cultural spheres, and the powers that be. And let’s not forget those whose survival depends on the powers that be, at any time in history, which covers just about everybody.
The Sixties were a bend in the river—-a river that seems to be in danger of going the way of the Rio Grande—dried up. Susan Sherman traces the gathering currents of this river at the confluence between some of its major tributaries. For her it begins in Los Angeles in the Forties and Fifties, which was by then the heart of America’s image-making machine. Her transformation follows the larger social trajectory of a country that rose victorious and prosperous from a world war. First are her frustrated early attempts to keep step with the world of toothpaste smiles, tidy lawns, backyard barbeques, martini cocktail hours, and non-filtered cigarettes. With her move to Berkley at nineteen, and the ensuing, age-specific progression of influences, relationships and their resulting liberations and limitations, she begins her five-decade investigation into political and social change and the power and beauty of language.
America’s Child, Susan Sherman’s moving and engaging book, begins in a movie theater watching the documentary “Control Room.” This takes her back to a memory of sitting in a similar room in Havana in 1969. As one of a small group of Americans among a larger group of Vietnamese students, she watches a documentary about the American bombing of North Vietnam. There is footage of an American plane being shot down. The audience, both her American companions and the Vietnamese, applauds and cheers wildly. In her characteristic way, Sherman doesn’t leave it at that. She reminds us that she is recalling these events from an older and wiser place, explaining that she remained silent, feeling conspicuous and conflicted. This is very much a personal history not an analytic one. We are never left to wonder about her perceptions and reactions. Her memoir reads like a novel where the depth of its characters and the way they initiate or react to events are windows into a historical place and time. Considering the current, sometimes scandalous, fashion of offering fiction as memoir, Sherman’s ability to weave together events and people provides the merits of both.
1969 was a pivotal year of the 1960’s. It was post May ’68 when it could be said that the Flower Children went postal. It was many complications after the underground burblings of a few, isolated individuals found each other and began constructing communities made up of intellectual revolutionaries dedicated to social change. By 1969 the media had created its own version of “rebellious youth,” Hippy Fashion had pervaded large department store windows and had taken root in the very suburban lifestyles it meant to undermine. Starting with that glimpse of where she had landed in 1969, she then takes us further back to Berkley 1958. We are allowed an intimate view of the awaking of a young girl: a developing poet increasingly involved in acts of peaceful civil disobedience, also discovering that she loves women. Her romantic enthusiasm, not yet fully activated, had yet to find its wave. At what point might she have realized she was part of its force?
In 1958 “Nonconformist” had become a buzzword for a relatively small group of ”free thinkers” and dissenters. They challenged the material and social achievements of the post-war middle class, threatening to dismantle most of the fundamental beliefs in the American ideal. The American character had transformed itself from the struggling, industrious, average Joe into the white-collar corporate ideal living a cookie cutter, suburban lifestyle. This was actually just an updated version of the poor worker enslaved by 19th century industrialists transplanted into the expanding corporate, service industry structure. The only difference was that now the slaves wore grey flannel suits and ties. This new group of bearded, long-haired people who didn’t clean under their nails or wear make-up saw themselves as the true “rugged individualists”—Americans who would exercise, and, thereby protect, the U.S. Constitution as fervently as any Conservative Republican ever claimed to.
Sherman sets out to bridge the separation in time between who she was and who she has become. The turning point for her is moving to Berkley where she fortuitously meets and lives with the poet Diane Wakowski and her lover, avant guarde musician, La Monte Young, also students at the University. Wakowski and Young take a somewhat protective role, much like surrogate parents. The apartment building on Telegraph Avenue is filled with artists and writers who pass their work around, reading aloud in dark, candle-lit rooms strewn with empty bottles of cheap jug wine. This living situation provided a sense of finally having found one’s true family. It was as if, despite having grown up with one’s birth parents, feeling you’ve been left with foster parents, you now discover a new, exotic life—the one you can and will choose:
To discover the world you have known since childhood is not the only world is probably the most important discovery in a person’s life, because it is to discover the possibility of, not one, but many alternatives. It is to discover the possibility of choice.
Of course this was at a time when the American economy was booming and it was possible to work just enough to pay your rent and live on the fringe if you didn’t mind eating rice and beans and whatever you might be able to shoplift now and then. It was a generation that prided itself on rejection of TV and advertising, creating its own, alternative media. The phenomenon of the internet might not have evolved in the free-for-all, anarchistic way it did, at least in its early days, without the preceding flood of grassroots media, like The East Village Other, WBAI, street and avant guard theater, most importantly, the Living Theater, decades before. Art and literature thrived with new blood and ideas; movements were started. There was cross germination among writers, painters, dancers and musicians. It was a time of prolific cultural activity in the company of acute political self-education. The Living Theater, the Performance Group, Joe Chaiken’s Open Theater, Larry Rivers, Jasper Johns, La Monte Young, Charlotte Mormon and Fluxus. Among these was Sherman’s IKON magazine. The struggles with financing and governmental surveillance that she describes, the dedication and sacrifice often required for survival, can be applied to all radical artistic venues of that time. Although the Beats had become an icon to the mainstream by then, they still lived and worked within this larger community of poets, visual and performance artists, part of a bigger wave. In a sense it was America’s Renaissance. But, unlike the earlier European one, it flourished in opposition to the Church and wealthy elite, rather than its sponsorship.
Herbert Marcuse had written “Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory” less than twenty years before Susan Sherman entered Berkley. But these students and artists had incorporated the idea, whether knowingly or not, that only rational thought should determine the rights and freedoms of the individual, a member of a species whose determining characteristic is the capacity for reason, or rational thought. In the midst of this cultural renaissance and political awaking were sources of moral outrage. Desegregation of the schools had been unanimously voted as upholding the 14th amendment of Equal Protection Under the Law in 1954. However, true racial integration would still be a long way off.
The overriding issue was the Vietnam War. Feminism and Gender Politics would eventually grow out of the internal struggles of the movement itself, but in the early stages the perception was that an illegal and immoral war stood for all that was wrong in Western society and economic policy. Sherman’s journeys to Cuba, for example, proved to be not only moving experiences for her on a social and interpersonal level, but on a more practical one as well. Doctors in New York had diagnosed her with an enlarged gall bladder and duodenal ulcer, requiring a month long stay in a hospital. Having no health insurance, she was given some codeine and sent on her agonized way. On a previous trip she’d met Castro’s doctor, René Vallejo. After some correspondence, he invited her to Cuba to receive treatment. It was on this trip, after her recovery, that she was given a private meeting with Castro at a gymnasium where he played basketball with his ministers after midnight, the only free time they had. They spoke for almost an hour about her experiences in a Cuban hospital and the status of the student movement and the New York art community’s reactions to the Vietnam War. The details of this dialogue make for fascinating reading. It is a rare, open discussion between the successful leader of a large revolution, maintaining order and his own power against the antagonism of a larger, more powerful nation, and a poet living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan struggling to keep an underground literary journal going against the antagonisms of the same nations. The accessibility of Castro to someone who had no name or status beyond a small group of young poets and activists is what impresses the reader as much as the discussion itself.
Sherman’s explorations, and it does almost read like those 19th century, adventurous journeys into untrammeled territory, covered every aspect of the richly textured time and place in which she lived. It brought her into contact with many of the major figures that formed our current perceptions, attitudes, values and artistic vocabularies. Her experiences with psychedelics, for example, are not merely the same tired hallucinatory revelations of many who tried to convey such experience, but are infused with her characteristic humor as well. She goes to the Fillmore East, a large rock palace on Second Avenue, to see a lecture by Timothy Leary. She’d heard some horrible stories about the man, but tried to keep an open mind. But when he instructs his audience to “Just pretend for sixty seconds I am the wisest man on earth,” she tells her friend, “I don’t have that good an imagination,” and heads for the nearest exit.
By the author’s own account, she sees her memoir as an imagined conversation between the girl she was and the woman she is now. Fortunately, for us, and for future generations curious about what the Sixties were all about in New York City, she has chosen to write it down.