The Children of the Counterculture.
by John Rothchild and Susan Wolf.
Doubleday. 207 pp. $7.95.
The adolescents who made up the “youth revolution” of the 1960’s—the flower children, hippies, communards, self-styled radicals, and other assorted counterculture types—are now in their late 20’s and early 30’s. Though the members of this once clamorous band have dispersed throughout society, a fair portion of them, it seems, have neither sought nor found places in the mainstream. John Rothchild and Susan Wolf, he a former Fulbright scholar and now a professional journalist based in Florida, she a young widow with two small children, set off on a cross-country tour to find out what had become of these aging rebels, what sorts of lives they were making, and especially how they were raising their own children.
The authors’ travels, which began in Miami, took them to numerous enclaves throughout the country where young men and women were pursuing “alternative life-styles.” They visited some rural and urban communes, Synanon (a drug rehabilitation community in California to which many non-addicts arc now also repairing), and several “religious” communities based for the most part on bastardized forms of Eastern faiths.
The authors’ own “progressive” credentials were well in order for this journey. Living together but unmarried, they allowed Mrs. Wolf’s two-year-old daughter to puff on marijuana, planned to send both her children to “free schools” (without courses, schedules, grades, permanent records, or required curriculum), and, most important, were raising them “in a much more open and aware manner than their parents had raised them.” Moreover, before the authors began their odyssey—in a Volkswagen which they self-deprecatingly refer to as a “portable suburb” because it contained such encumbrances as books, toys, and snacks—they had already assured themselves on a number of points regarding American society. That society, in their view, had proved to be a breeding ground of corruption and distress—they cite such symptoms as the high divorce rate, corporate chicanery, the rape of the land, the sundry pathologies of the nuclear family. Since, however, it was the protesters of the 1960’s who had been the first to divine how badly things were going, it seemed highly possible that they had gone on to find a way out of the trap. Specifically, those who had been “expected to become doctors or lawyers, people who grew up in middle-class America and then rejected it,” might have succeeded in raising children who were not only free and “aware” but well-behaved (because happy) and unobtrusive.
Although nothing in their research was to shake the special disapprobation Rothchild and Wolf reserve for the nuclear family, neither did the “alternatives” they investigated please them entirely. Especially in urban areas where parents tended to hold down regular jobs, the authors found that many individuals of supposedly radical persuasion were only masquerading as “free people”; though they did not force their children to bathe, go to school, keep regular hours, or observe any of the other bourgeois conventions, their children still did not seem to be prospering. The children, in fact, seemed rather troubled, and many were, worst of all, quite badly behaved, a constant burden to the adults around them, “the general nuisance and bother they had become in many American homes.”
Thus, investigating one “free school” in Miami, they encountered Ben, a ten-year-old known as “the hippest kid in Miami.” Son of a sometime pimp-and-prostitute team who lived rent-free in a friend’s $75,000 house, Ben had been carrying on sexual activities with his mother since he was six; she boasted that this would redeem him from the Oedipal tortures by which most men arc beset. Surly and withdrawn, he was not, the authors concluded after several weeks of observation, really “liberated” at all but merely the victim of a familiar American syndrome—parental efforts to aggrandize themselves through the “successes” of their children!
Similarly disappointing to the authors were the several religious communes they visited. They were especially dismayed by Guracula, a boarding school in Dallas run by the Hare Krishna, where five-year-olds cry for mothers who have abandoned them, and the captive “students,” wakened at three in the morning for prayer meetings, learn nothing but the teachings of their parents’ “religion,” have no play time, and arc discouraged from speaking of anything that does not heighten “Krishna consciousness.” Yet this is not the worst feature of the place. According to Rothchild and Wolf, despite “rigid discipline, prodigious use of the apple switch, long hours of praying and chanting, isolation from the rest of the world,” there is still “noncompliance on the part of the children.” For all the beatings, the children do not toe the line.
Finally, however, in various isolated, rural communes, Rothchild and Wolf did find forms of childrearing that were paying off; these turn out to be explicitly authoritarian in nature. They enthuse especially over The Farm, a conglomeration of tents and old buses set on some acreage in Tennessee, bought by reformed professionals who threw off their old ways, as the authors put it, “not for some abstract notion of Utopia, but for that very specific euphoria that comes when you arc stoned and in love with the world.” The adults, who live according to “a rigid code of behavior” developed by their leader, have found a way not only of purifying their own lives, but of raising decent children as well. During the day, the children are organized into work crews, in a manner reminiscent to the authors of “the little children in Mao’s China.” Surveying the beehive activity of The Farm, the authors note: “Children. were walking up hills, pulling wagons, even as young as eighteen months old, but they were not crying.” This miracle, they are told, is made possible because even babies are “put outside the energy center when they cry”; the great genius of The Farm management, it turns out, is to render its population of two hundred children “invisible.” Here, no one frets over pediatrics or education. The children of The Farm interfere in their parents’ lives at peril of being banished from them:
Nobody asked the question, “What will you be when you grow up?” and the absence of that concept simplified discipline to a remarkable extent. . . . The only important question is whether the little girl is being a bitch right now, or the little boy is being a brat right now.
Beyond the routine biases that inform this book—unequivocal opprobrium for the middle class, unqualified sympathy for every impulse, however harebrained or squalid or corrupt, that sets itself against that institution—lies something relatively new and pernicious, which amounts to a hatred of children. Almost from the outset of Children of the Counterculture, Rothchild and Wolf reveal a hostility toward children (most blatantly, Mrs. Wolf’s own) that they hardly bother to dissemble. The two-year-old is described as a “complete bitch” (when she seeks her mother’s attention it is called “obnoxiously tugging” at her skirt); both boy and girl are constantly derided as “whiners” and “show-offs”; and when either interrupts some scholarly rumination or a bit of dope-smoking, perhaps to ask for a glass of water, it is taken as a symptom of the way Western civilization has turned parents into the slaves of their offspring.
The underlying assumption in all this is that children as a rule are so insufferable that “radical solutions” must be found to make them bearable. Any particular solution that may be hit upon is then judged by the authors according to one standard only—how far does it go in obviating the soul-sapping burden that children are to their parents? From the Hare Krishna school, which imposes slave-labor camp conditions on youngsters in the name of religious education, through the state-of-nature anarchy of communes where children run in unsupervised packs like wild dogs while their parents hold consciousness-raising sessions, take drugs, and lock their offspring out of the kitchen so that an evening meal need not be shared with them, to the regressive, semi-fascistic conditions of places like The Farm, Rothchild and Wolf uncover one after another set of “alternative life-stylers” who in reality have discovered nothing more “radical” than various ways of escaping parenthood.
That those who are themselves flagging in the business of growing up should be found woefully at sea in the raising of their own children is perhaps not surprising. After all, they arc merely continuing, into adulthood, and decked out in a rhetoric suited to their new situation, the patterns of egotism for which they became notorious in their own youth in the 60’s. It is, however, indicative of the values the authors share with these parents that the abuse and neglect of children should come to be hailed by them as a pioneering act of heroism. For this we needed a counterculture?