Split: A Counterculture Childhood.
Lisa Michales was born in 1966. Her mother, the daughter of prosperous Goldwater Republicans from Huntington, Long Island, was 21. Her father, son of a misused Jewish housewife from Valley Stream, Long Island, was 24. The young couple divorced within a year of their daughter's birth. That fact would shape her life. Her father, an organizer for SDS, joined the Weathermen and in 1969, when Michaels was three, took part in an anti-war demo - a smashup at the Harvard School of International Studies - that netted him an unheard-of two-year jail sentence, of which he served a year and a half. Among Michaels' earliest memories are visits to her father at the Massachusetts state pen.
His post-prison wonkiness and his ex-wife's mistrust and hostility made him a missing person in his daughter's life. Her anger over this early abandonment complicated relations between them for many years: Michaels was 21 and about to graduate from college before she could confront her father openly about his early defection. But this is not another memoir about childhood trauma. Michaels is not a victim and doesn't claim to be one.
Her father did get his life together. He remarried, to a fellow activist; a couple of college grads who could have pursued professional careers, they worked on the assembly lines in Southern California Ford and GM plants, did union organizing and had two daughters. The guiding text in their household was Mao's Little Red Book.
Michaels' birth mother, meanwhile, having driven cross-country with child and new lover in a converted mail truck, settled in rural northern California, married her beau, bought an old house, fixed it up, planted a vegetable garden. In time she also had two more children. The guiding text in this frugal, resourceful household was the Whole Earth Catalogue.
Children of divorce, even the most amicable and well-managed divorce, dream of reuniting the family. Michaels, growing up split, as the title says, between two loving and attentive households, reunites the whole clan between the covers of this book. Her lovely, intimate memoir opens a child's world of small worries to adult readers, without self-pity or self-deprecation. She shepherds her younger self around the way she would a kid sister. All those years - till she was ten - as the only child of four attentive but also, inevitably, at times distracted parents must have sharpened the powers of observation that grace this solipsistic, cocoony and convincing report from the other side of age twenty.
Michaels writes with a poet's quick rightness, limning a vignette and drawing a moral in the same compassed breath. At fifteen she's hurt when her stepmother introduces her to family friends as "Carl's daughter." She complains to her stepmother and gauges the response:
...there must have been some unreasonable bruising in my face, because she didn't reach out to touch me. She was saying we had our circumstances; we had come together by chance, and that couldn't be willed away. It takes a certain rigor to live with these odd unions, to mist their bonds all the while knowing that they aren't equal to the bonds of blood. At fifteen I didn't have that discipline. (pp. 154-155)
Thirty-two is young to be writing any kind of memoir. Still, recording the hard-won lessons of her complicated childhood, Michaels sometimes approaches something like wisdom.
In childhood memories, as we know from Proust, Bruno Schulz and Osip Mandelstam, emotions mysteriously attach to objects, landscapes, faces, tastes and smells. Michaels, a poet herself, explores this early training or rehearsal for a poet's way of thinking in several suggestive passages. She recalls discussing God with her mother.
[A]s I pondered I stared at a conical straw hat that hung over the refrigerator. Jim had brought it back from China.... I used to wear the hat around the yard, playing peasant. The brim was so low it blocked out the horizon, leaving you with a view of the shady circle at your feet. Now, in the kitchen, trying to plumb my mother's silence, I stared at its perfect cone, and in the odd way that an object becomes fled to some scrap of feeling, that hat became linked to my notion of God - a thing that sheltered you and at the same tune lettered your vision. (pp. 100-101)
The sixties (which include a good part of the seventies, of course) have been patronized, commercialized, coopted, vilified and villainized since day one. None of that happens here. Michaels sees past the trappings - fashions in clothes, spending habits and ideologies - to the human truth of situations. When her father remarried, he and his wife held a small private ceremony in the park with their ten-year-old daughter, asking her to read to them from Mao's Little Red Book. She records the tremulous solemnity of the occasion: "If I didn't catch the meaning, I at least grasped the privilege they had granted me, and I tried to pronounce clearly the words they set their course by." Her father and stepmother practiced self-criticism as taught by Chairman Mao. "My father got out apiece of paper and ran categories across the top: Excellent, Good, Blab, Yech." Michaels' tender comment: "In hindsight, it seems brave of them to have asked a ten-year-old for so many opinions."
In this child's-eye memoir, mother is the ground - steady, reliable, not taken for granted certainly, but not seen in dramatic high relief either - while father is the problematic figure, elusive, self-absorbed, resented. By 1980 most of Carl Michaels' comrades have given up the straggle and found more profitable careers. Lisa Michaels sees the dogged heroism in his loyalty to his ideals - working night shift at the last Ford plant in California, writing books on labor history, raising his children, always short on cash and sleep. The heroism comes through more sharply in this unforgiving portrait; peppered by frequent complaints and doubts, than it would in a straight-on encomium.
But she can't share his political commitment. As a child she's made fearful by his lectures. "I shrank from the news of the apocalypse and from the dread that lifted from him like a sweat. I wondered sometimes how far down we could sink, how completely our world could unravel, since it had started bad and seemed always to be worsening." As a teenager, she's jealous of his consuming preoccupation. As a young adult arriving on the UCLA campus in 1984, year of the Reagan landslide, she's troubled by the "eerie somnolence" of the place, but her rebellion, her "wildness was purely a matter of style...long skirts and ethnic jewelry,...tie..dye and Birkenstocks and worn batik dresses with bells on the hems." No activist, contemplating the world's wrongs, she feels simply discouraged: "I was convinced that before long I would be snuffed out by a stray ICBM."
And yet as a writer, she's clearly her father's daughter. It shows, notably, in her careful, alert descriptions of people down on their luck. Commuting between her two households by Greyhound bus, she gives some coins to a homeless man in a bus station who goes fight to the coffee machine. "Looks like horse piss. But it's a meal." One summer she works as a sorter in a pear-packing plant. Her comments on the mind-numbing labor show her father's influence, but the striking formulation is her own. "Thoughts take root in events; they get snagged in the debris of action. Work on the line was certainly action, but it was small action, repeated with little variance, until it felt like no action at all."
She doesn't lack a social conscience. What she lacks, perhaps, is social imagination, historical perspective. She's not interested in showing you her father out in the world, among his friends. She's barely interested in seeing him as a member of his generation. Thousands fought and died in Vietnam, or came home with permanent injury. A few stayed home and went to jail instead. Others managed to avoid either alternative. Michaels grew up after the draft had been abolished. She doesn't understand that kind of coercion; she doesn't see her family as one of many damaged by the war. She ruminates on her early sorrows in isolation.
It's characteristic that her coming of age - a kind of staged dramatic denouement near the end of the book - also occurs in isolation from society. Fresh out of UCLA, she goes off alone to India and Nepal. Trekking in Nepal, she confronts a life-threatening situation, one woman against the elements. It's also characteristic that what carries her through this ordeal is the memory of her mother's sturdy courage. The moral she draws from this close call also has to do with family ties. It's the one time in the book you feel she's forcing her memories into the shape of a preconceived message.
Intimacy is the memoir's strength; solipsism its weakness. Maybe Michaels is still recovering from the Reagan years at UCLA. And quite possibly my complaint about her dim and distant view of the sixties simply dates me: I am old enough to be her mother. Michaels may not have much to say about Vietnam, but she's endlessly eloquent about today's hot topic: the survival of families.