At first, I landed the wrong fish. The ad read: “Are You Literally a Child of the Sixties? Did you go to protests and rallies as a grade-schooler? Were your parents members of the counterculture? We’re curious to hear what you’re doing now and how you feel about having been raised during a time of political and social experimentation.” But the voices on the machine sounded a little timeworn, and they turned out to be not hippie kids but aging momma and poppa hippies, eager to relive their commune days: “Yeah, my name is Greg and I’ve got some, heh heh, pretty trippy stories for your article.”
Then I got a few letters. The first from a prisoner who had gone to a rally once and hoped I might do an exposé on his unfair conviction for robbery, the second from Dr. Bennett Berger, a professor emeritus in sociology at ucsd, who had done field research in Northern California communes in the ’70s. He jotted off a stern note on university letterhead, saying he hoped I wasn’t planning to rehash the usual “nonsense written about communes & ‘the ’60s’ ” and said to call him if I wanted to talk.
Where were the people who’d been toddlers at antiwar rallies? Where were the 30-year-olds weaned on sprouts and soy milk? And why were the baby boomers so reluctant to give up their right to define the ’60s?
Reached on the phone, the professor was wary. He’d so often seen the era described in reductive, inaccurate ways: “The press wants to make things cute, ironic, salable.”
I agreed that was often the case and explained a little about my methods. I hoped to hear from a sampling of children raised in the counterculture and protest movements and record their stories — a kind of oral history. And as the person asking the questions and editing the answers, I had my own stake: my father was an antiwar activist and union organizer; my mother threw over her silver-spoon upbringing and traveled the country in a converted mail truck. I have mixed feelings about the ’60s. It seemed to me like a wild time, in which real gains were made for social good, and like any other “movement” it was made up of people of every stripe. I wasn’t looking for a pithy thesis. And the editors at the Reader seemed willing to let the story be as shaggy and wild as the subject.
The professor chuckled and opened up a little: “Journalists point with satisfied irony to the ex-hippies who’ve become the bmw drivers of the ’90s, but the fact is that in the ’60s, the counterculture was made up of less than 10 percent of the youth. The majority of the people were never hippies. So it comes down to numbers. How many justifies a stereotype?”
He had done a study of communes in Mendocino County, on a grant from the federal government. “We camped up there and did what anthropologists do: participant observation.” As part of his project, he had looked at child-rearing practices on the communes. “There’s the middle-class notion of child-rearing: that it requires a lot of time and effort and money to raise children well, and if you don’t have all those resources, you’re a bad parent. But if you don’t have all those resources, you’re also more inclined to say that kids don’t need close supervision, that they don’t need delayed adulthood, so kids in those situations tend to grow up early. Even though the commune members chose poverty, it was still poverty. You’re gardening, building buildings, putting in water systems — putting in a town from scratch. You don’t have a lot of time for rearing children. So they had a kind of old romantic Rousseauian notion: You give them a little food, a little water, they grow up straight and tall.”
I was interested in the professor’s impressions: I’d grown up in those same coastal mountains, though my mother and stepfather were not commune dwellers but back-to-the-landers, trying to fit modestly into a rural town. Our having arrived in a converted mail truck with a smokestack out the side didn’t help. But many of the professor’s observations applied: I’d grown up a little wild — always with a bit of food on my face in the photos, prone to biting other kids — but with a self-sufficiency that came in handy as an adult. Now I was curious about the chance assemblage of people who might step forward in response to my ad — what they thought of their childhoods, what they were doing now.
Then, last fall, I started to hear from the right folks: “My name is Taj, and I’m definitely a child of the ’60s.…” There was a slightly bemused tone to their voices. They had all grappled with their unusual legacies — some were grappling still. Most of them had left behind the trappings of the counterculture — they led seemingly conventional lives — but still they spoke of feeling like “outsiders.” Many of them were doing some form of social service and felt compelled to help those in need, but at the same time they spoke of the pull of materialism, the desire to compensate for things they didn’t have in their youth. More than anything, I was struck by the range of their experiences. The counterculture meant many things to many people, from civil rights to communal living to Eastern religion. The common denominator: their parents had been on personal quests, and they had vivid memories of what it was like to go along for the ride. Listening to their stories, I would often think of the sociology professor: he would no doubt wince at how neatly some of the tales fit the script. And yet it seemed to me that these children, who had been given an enormous amount of freedom — even, at times, more than they might have liked — had grown up “straight and tall.” And they viewed their parents with as much tolerance and thoughtfulness and love as they themselves had once been granted.