News & Politics
Boring Meetings and Weird Parents
May 16, 2000
Split: A Counterculture Childhoodby Lisa MichaelsHoughton Mifflin, $23, 307 pp.I read Split: A Counterculture Childhood because I was looking for tips. It's the memoir of Lisa Michaels, born in 1966 and raised by parents who were a political radical (dad) and an anti-materialist semihippie (mom). For political parents, our greatest fear is that our children will be rebels -- against us, that is. When Michaels was interviewed by Terry Gross on National Public Radio, I got the impression that she wasn't an activist, but agreed with her parents' political convictions. Good enough, I thought. Let's find out how they did it. It seems to me that, in general, radical parents do a pretty good job of passing on their values to their kids. But it seems likely that, in an era such as ours, when exciting movements are few and far between, "politics" could come to be equated, in a child's mind, with "boring meetings" and "Mom not home to tuck me in." Michaels says her father's countless meetings were indeed boring and hard to understand, but at least they were held in her living room. She dragged her feet about going to rallies for affirmative action or farmworkers, and her feelings about being there, logically enough, changed with the circumstances: "I was full of self-congratulatory heroism when it looked like the public mood was in our favor. But when the turnout was slim, or it rained, or the police walked the streets in riot gear, I shrank back. ... We were few and weak. They could crush us under their thumbs." Michaels describes the things she missed, or was embarrassed by, because of her mother's values. In kindergarten, "I soon learned how other families spent their nights. Half the recess chatter involved recounting the previous evening's television shows -- a whole world I knew nothing about." She watches "Tom and Jerry" at the neighbor's whenever she can. She observes the strange dinnertime rituals at her friend's house -- saying grace, asking to be excused at the end of the meal -- and begs her parents to teach her etiquette. Her mother feeds her mostly out of her huge garden, and bakes her own bread ("dark, of course"), while Charlene and Jill next door get white bread and bologna, Lucky Charms and potato chips. Michaels nags her mother to wear blush and mascara. In second grade, the kids make fun of the "hippie girl" because she keeps her paper in a red velvet box made by her mother, instead of in a binder. Here Michaels voices an ambivalence that recurs: "To join in the shrill laughter would betray my mother's thoughtfulness, and yet part of me blamed her for sending me into the world without proper equipment." In high school, she yearns for a suburban tract house.What's more striking than Michaels' perceived deprivations and embarrassments is the guilt she often felt. The way I read it, some of this was because her father was a bit of a jerk. A former Weatherman, he had moved to the Bay Area and joined a Maoist group. At the end of each summer visit -- the two parents split up when Michaels was 4 months old -- Michaels and her father and stepmother would do "criticism/self-criticism" of her stay. How was her relationship with her stepmother progressing? How was the daycare? How was Michaels' own behavior? Michaels says she entered into these reviews enthusiastically. Her father urges her to read a biography of Paul Robeson, for self-improvement. Her stepmother gives her a book on Chinese revolutionary youth, ever noble. Passing a porn theater is one of many opportunities for an earnest moral lesson. Even her mother's customary send-off is "think of the other guy." Dad writes in one of her book-gifts that there are two kinds of people in the world: Those who live for themselves and those who live for others. What kind of trip is that to lay on a child? At one point, Dad scares 12-year-old Michaels by turning the living room stereo up loud (to foil possible bugs) and telling her he may have to move to Kentucky to help the coal miners. It's a "crucial fight," and surely the assistance of an outside agitator from California is just what they need. The effect on Michaels is often, not always, feelings of fear and guilt. "I wanted to slip into the bland flow of passersby; I wanted to live a life that aroused no suspicion or trouble ... I would lie in bed despairing over my lack of courage. I was afraid that if I had lived in Nazi Germany, if I had been a Christian with an empty attic, I would have turned the Jews away." The comforts of her life -- compared to those of migrant farmworkers, living in cardboard boxes -- make her feel afraid, because she's done nothing to deserve them. On the other hand, her father's politics lead him to not waste time yelling or moralizing over certain subjects. When she's caught shoplifting, she writes, "If my father had tried to speak of profit margins or the businessman's right to a fair buck, I would have laughed through my teeth. He had spent his life questioning the rights of big capital; he certainly wasn't going to take their side over a vial of eye drops." Instead his advice is practical: "They're cracking down on this kind of thing. It's not worth it anymore." Despite a certain heavy-handedness, in the end Michaels seems to feel that her parents have sent her into the world with proper equipment. She's a beautiful writer, with many an evocative phrase that makes you know just how it was (and wonder how she can remember so well). At her wedding (planned for a year and catered, in contrast to her parents' and stepparents' casual trips to city hall), she thinks, "I'd become what they had given me, a girl with enough wild days to fill a story, and the faith to think I could tell it."Jane Slaughter can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.