Loose Change by Sara Davidson. Doubleday, 367 pp., $9.50.
The early part of Loose Change is a mess. The idea — to follow the lives of three active women from their matriculation at Berkeley in the early sixties to their eventual destination in the seventies — sounds fine, but the author doesn’t quite know where to pick up on the lives, since it does seem that their first eighteen years have some bearing; she has trouble at first organizing her narrative, separating the women, since they were sorority sisters and spent a lot of time together; furthermore, the events she is describing are mostly sophomoric and dull. The book opens with an inscription:
Some great wind was brewing as we breathed, not a new generation; but a new notion of generation with new notions of its imperatives. We would not default, succumb to the certainties of age . . . compromise maturely . . . We would not be normal. For normality was now disease.
“My Generation,” 1968
“Oh Ashley,” said Scarlett. “Nothing’s turned out the way I expected.”
The quotation by Brackman is fine; even before reading the book, we suspect that its tone is ironic. But it is hard to understand the mind of an author who thinks we need to have the irony pointed out by the heavy-handed second quotation. And why in the world quote Scarlett O’Hara, of all people, in a book on the sixties?
We shouldn’t, of course, be too harsh on the naivete of young people arriving at college, but it is hard to restrain yourself when you have to read about it at such length. “The history of ideas!” Sara exclaims as she arrives at Berkeley, all bubbly and starry-eyed. “El Greco! Erik Erikson!” (Surely our author is being ironic with this coupling, though after that inscription one can’t be sure.) At an early demonstration which she enthusiastically attends, she is handed a sign bearing the words “Jim Crow Must Go.” “What does that mean? I asked Candy. She wasn’t sure.” It is a thrilling, liberating moment — the fraternity boys bring dates, and there is a celebration afterwards — when a young teaching assistant uses the word “fucking” in a lecture on D.H. Lawrence (the same young man had been known to tell fraternity pledges, “The shittier you are to girls, the more desirable you are.) Sara claims to have read up on black literature early in her career, but to this day she apparently thinks Ralph Ellison’s book is entitled The Invisible Man (what is wrong with the proofreaders at Doubleday?). Or perhaps she thinks H.G. Wells was black.
The problems of the book are perhaps best reflected as Davidson describes her reaction to the assassination of President Kennedy.
At the Student Union we stood before the television monitors, watching flat images: Jackie in shock, bloodstains on her suit. Lyndon Johnson speaking into the microphones: “I will do my best. That is all I can do. I ask for your help — and God’s.” Something immeasurable had been snatched from us and although I could not have said what it was, I knew that we would not see it again.
It is an old game — where were you when you heard? — and first reactions are bound to be banal, in the shock of the moment. But from a book whose dust jacket calls it “a major work of social history” we expect something more. What larger meaning did the assassination have? What impact did it have on the remainder of the decade? “Something immeasurable had been snatched” is all we ever get.
Yet her publisher may have saddled Ms. Davidson with a burden that she never intended to bear. She herself includes a kind of disclaimer on the last page of the book (a little late perhaps): “I’m afraid I will be criticized for copping out. (“We want to know what you make of it all, what this period meant in terms of a society, a culture.”) But the truth is, I have not found answers and I’m not sure I remember the questions.” Her training was as a journalist, not a historian. She has the slick style of a magazine writer, and is content to remain mostly on the surface of things. When her subject is dull, or confused, she is too, but as the book progresses into some of the larger movements of the decade, it grows more compelling. What perhaps saves the book, makes the bulk of it interesting and entertaining, if not profound, is Davidson’s remarkable honesty. She does not flinch from the most embarrassing and painful details, even in her own life. I was annoyed by the triviality of the early part of the book, but as as it moved along I found myself enjoying it and admiring its narrator. Her clear-sighted reportorial journalism, which somewhat limits the book in its conception, is perhaps what saves it in the long run.
Davidson is shrewd in her choice of subjects: in their careers, the three women span many of the important movements of the sixties, and they also seem recognizable as types from one’s own experience. Petite, with cascading blond hair, Tasha was the stunning beauty of the group, envied, resented, always somewhat ostracized by other women because of her beauty, all the time failing to understand her own sexual magnetism, convinced she was ugly, fretting that her breasts were too small. Her parents were liberal and understanding, and she had close relationships with both, especially her father, but an early traumatic abortion — somehow, according to Tasha, she was impregnated without an act of intercourse, while still a virgin, through cotton underpants yet — left her afraid of sex and somewhat shy of men. Still, she attracted the most outrageous among them. Her first relationship was with the teaching assistant who said “fucking”; no doubt he was shitty to her. Next came Steven Silver, a poet, a known “destroyer of women,” who approached her with the words “You’re my ideal woman” and proved to be a wonderful lover, re-awakening her sexual feelings. But in the middle of her Berkeley experience, in a terrible trauma, her father died, and Silver, characteristically, soon began seeing another woman, playing one affair off against the other. Tasha fled Berkeley for Europe, then New York, where she found work in a private gallery and became immersed in the frantic life of the New York art world. “Pop art, Op art, put-ons and camp. Splashy openings at Castelli’s and the Jewish Museum. Paris Review parties.” For a time she went through a number of men in casual sexual encounters. Eventually she faced a choice between two, Jay, a young Californian who was about to start medical school and would have led her into a conventional existence, and Mark, a white-haired, middle-aged New York sculptor who was married and seeing her on the sly. It was a choice that even at the time she clearly understood, between peace and turmoil. One is tempted to think that in the older man she was seeking out the father she had lost, but the fact is, also, that he sounds like the far more interesting man, and she could not bring herself to settle into a life of conventionality. The affair with Mark had its beauties and rewards, but also its torments. By the end of ’69 she was suffering from insomnia and nightmares, and had started into analysis.
Susie’s life took place in another world. Her parents had died early and tragically, and, unlike Tasha, she had always been a cliquish girl, seeking out the fast crowd, ostracizing others. Almost immediately at Berkeley she was involved in politics, and soon became the acknowledged “old lady” of Jeff Berman, one of the most famous radicals on campus (except for Sara Davidson’s own, the names in the book have been changed). He was a strong personality, a compelling orator; she was always at his side, marching with him, lettering signs. To all appearances they were the leading couple on campus, smart, sexy, tough. But behind appearances was a far different reality. Though they had always been sexually active — it was part of their mystique — she had never had an orgasm or much enjoyed sex, and in politics she swallowed his ideas whole, never questioning them or thinking them through for herself. After living together for some time, they got married in ’65. Early in their marriage, as well she might, she experienced feelings of emptiness, anxiety; Jeff was quick to calm her concerns when it might have been better to hear them out. She got pregnant and had the child; as if it were some kind of fad that suddenly caught on, other couples in their crowd followed suit. With each other’s consent, they began to experiment sexually, but sex with others was no more fulfilling for Susie than sex with Jeff. A turning point for her was the rise of the Women’s Movement. As Jeff’s old lady she had been somewhat distant from other women, envied, resented, and it was a great revelation for her to begin to take take them seriously as people, to hear their concerns. She began to have ideas of her own. As strange as it may sound for a woman so involved in the political upheavals of her time, the most dramatic moment in her life with Jeff came when she confessed in an encounter group that she had never had an orgasm. Instantly their image as a couple was shattered; that single revelation was the hottest item in Berkeley gossip for a week. That moment, of abandoning the role others had assigned her, assuming her own identity, was vastly important to Susie. From then on, she grew stronger as a person, more independent of Jeff.
Sara’s own experience stands between Susie’s radical politics and the elegance of Tasha’s art world; in some ways it was the most varied of the three. At Berkeley she was involved with leftist politics but was somewhat compromised by her association with the more conservative journalists on the campus newspaper. She had sexual experiences and enjoyed them; she experimented with drugs; she came to know and be comfortable with kinds of people — especially blacks — that her previous experience had made her wary of. She spent part of her junior year abroad, had a brief elegant European phase. Following Berkeley, she moved on to a frantic stint, hilariously described, at the Columbia School of Journalism, then found work on the Boston Globe. To some of the tough Irishmen on the Globe she was suspect for her involvement with leftist groups, but a psychiatrist who had interviewed her for the job made a shrewd assessment which understood what it was in Sara which set her apart from other members of her generation; “Don’t be misled by this young woman’s tendency toward beatnik dress and liberal thought. The data from her past indicates that she is a competent, systematic achiever.” She was a successful reporter at the Globe. Like Tasha in her art world, like Susie following her marriage, she had a wide variety of relationships, eventually became seriously involved with a man named Michael. He was handsome, aggressive; a writer, talker, a brilliant and unstable man. Davidson has an ironic sensibility that often stands back and mocks her own experience; much of their relationship is described comically. One evening they had had a particularly lovely sexual experience . . .
But the night ended badly, as did many of the nights that Michael and I spent together. The slightest word could ignite in him a rage and he would storm out. On this particular night, we had turned out the lights to sleep. Michael began to cough and toss. He propped himself up on pillows.
“Do you believe as I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone?” he asked me.
“I’m too tired to go into it now.”
He leaped from the bed, grabbed his clothes and slammed out the door. “You condescending cunt.”
They decided to marry. The day before the wedding he swore he would call the whole thing off if she cut her hair too much; on the day of the ceremony, “I sat in the bedroom crying. The rabbi came in and patted my shoulder. ‘Brides always cry,’ he said, ‘but they’re happy tears, tears of joy.’ He was wrong. I was crying because I was marrying a lunatic.” A turning point in her career came when she was turned down for a job on the New York Times. Severely depressed, experiencing even physical symptoms, she turned to freelance journalism, first for Harper’s, then for other magazines, and found in that work a whole new career. She travelled all over the country, publishing widely and prolifically. At the same time, though, she and Michael were beginning to draw apart, and she began to realize that her compulsive striving for success might be the symptom of a problem.
Other writers I knew took speed to concentrate, but I took tranquilizers to calm me down. Sometimes I sat at my desk for twelve, fourteen hours, refusing to let my myself eat or sleep until sheer fatigue forced me to crack through a block.
“Why do I put myself through this?” I asked Dr. Collins. He wanted me to lie on the couch and free-associate, and increased our sessions to four times a week. “It’s as if I’m determined to make myself suffer.”
“If that were true,” he said, “why would you want to do that?”
I said what came to me. “I’m bad.”
It is interesting that, as the book moves on, these three disparate lives come together. By the end of the sixties, all three women were burnt out. All three had had a wide range of sexual experiences, including one major involvement with a brilliant and unstable man. All had had difficult periods of psychological stress, sought help in therapy. All were to end their one major sexual involvement. All began to seek other paths to fulfillment. Susie split up with Jeff, became somewhat obsessed with the idea of personal independence. She traveled with her son Sam, lived at various communes, found it difficult to maintain any kind of relationship and still be independent. She saw in a lucid moment that, at least among her acquaintances, her experience was typical, that a kind of matriarchy had been created, of women with young children and without men. She longed at times for an ordinary life, an ordinary family, apart from the vanguard of things at Berkeley. Recuperating from a severe illness at Taos, she was drawn to the idea of a medical career, and, by the end of the book, without really abandoning her political convictions, had enrolled in medical school. Tasha, too, moved away from Mark, and found, first in a meditation group, then in a long retreat, a spiritual side to her life that she had long been neglecting; for a time she removed herself from the frantic pace of the art world.
Sara, too, found peace in a new spiritual awareness. Her experience began, characteristically, as she set out to write an article on modern seekers of salvation. She visited encounter groups, was skeptical, resented the people, resisted the experience, but found something authentic and moving in it all in spite of herself. After one difficult three-day retreat, she began to see the people in the group in a different light; she grew more accepting, less judgmental. She took a gentle lover named Noel, far different from the erratic Michael, who, though he tried to some extent to be open to it, was cut off from her new experience. A critical moment came when Sara set out to write an article about Baba Ram Dass. His words, attitudes, especially his presence, profoundly affected her, and brought about another turning point in her career. The article she wrote on him was unacceptable to Esquire: “We can’t publish the piece. Ram Dass comes off as silly and simplistic, and your willingness to embrace his ideas is incomprehensible.” Though some time later, greatly altered, the article was published in Ramparts, Sara began to see that her whole career had been based on her judgmental attitude toward the world. It seemed that her career was in tatters, but she had found a new kind of peace. Ram Dass had convinced her, as no one else had, that she did not have to achieve compulsively. He enabled her to look inside herself and see that she was not bad. At loose ends in her career, she began to conceive of a book that would examine her experiences through the sixties . . .
One finishes Loose Change with a great admiration for these three women who were able to look so uncompromisingly at their lives. It was not easy; afterwards, Susie’s reaction was typical. “I gave her a draft of this book to read and when she returned it, she broke down. ‘I’ll be okay.’ She wiped her eyes. ‘It’s just that . . . when I see it all in print, I see those years as a kind of madness. We were like children throwing tantrums. The times were exciting but boy were they scary.’ ” Though it is not a book that deals profoundly with ideas, Loose Change does provoke thought in the reader’s mind. What is almost eerie about reading it is that so many events in it seem dated, as far removed as things we used to read about in social histories of the twenties and thirties. A former professor of mine, a shrewd man, has told me me that, except for students’ appearances, things are much the same around campus as they were in the late fifties. It always seemed that the university was one institution that would never be the same again, but he says it was only for a few years that people went off the deep end. “You were in college at a bad time,” he often says to me. Who would have thought it? Events that seemed at the time to be changing the world now seem to him no more than a temporary aberration, like wearing raccoon coats or swallowing goldfish.