TRUE BELIEVER by Kurt Andersen
Do not buy this book. Waste no time reading it.
Andersen has presented America with a gross self-promotion, and he flat out misrepresents that this book is about the 1960s. Author Andersen is a National Public Radio host, a New York personality and a contributor to The Daily Beast. When asked by that Internet website to compile a list of his favorite books about the Sixties, Andersen put his book as Number One.
True Believer story: Woman in her sixties is writing her memoirs. The first chapter tells of her current life (divorce, professional status, etc.) She says she saved every document about her life from birth certificate to date, but the text belies she did that or she knows what she is writing about. Because of a poorly contrived literary contrivance of this book, I’ll call this woman First Person Girl.
In Chapter One Andersen introduces First Person Girl who is writing her memoirs. The first chapter is first person. Almost every chapter for 250 pages is First Person Girl in her sixties, as a child or as a teenager, and she is always “I.” Flitting between the present day and the Sixties (and sometimes events in between the Sixties and present day) requires a reader with a very complete memory of those 60 years just to know the references. Andersen does not tell what any character is actually thinking and why she is next doing something or changing her mind. He presents no life, no character changes and no character development. The book is a recitation of unconnected events with First Person Girl among them or mentioning them, along with more current and past events. Andersen tries to connect the reader to references by making First Person Girl a James Bond fan. What Andersen accomplishes is making First Person Girl silly, supercilious and superficial.
After introducing First Person Girl in Chapter One, most novelists would drop into the life of the subject. NOPE. There are improbable conversations. A grandchild asks First Person Girl, tell about the hippies. Did you smoke marijuana?!
Of 428 pages of text about half is present day stuff, and the remainder about the Sixties and references to facts in between (Princess Diane’s death). When writing, Andersen opened a reference book of events by year and asked himself: What am I going to put on the page from which year? The Mall March, August 1963, Harry Belafonte wasn’t identified as being there, but the lesser known in 1963 Sidney Poitier was. Next in that chapter was the “first real conversation about the Negro question with a Negro,” the family’s cleaning woman.(page 102) Violet complains, gives impressions and tells aspirations of the Civil Rights Movement, but it conveys nothing. Violet is not a real person; she’s a token stuck in so five pages can be devoted to Civil Rights exposition. First Person Girl next summarizes Violet’s conversations over “hundreds of hours…over the previous decade.”(105) [Which decade and when did First Person Girl have the conversations? Violet dies at age 51 within a decade.] Nothing is learned from the bald recitation of facts and impressions in the contrived, counterfeit drivel. Readers have no insight into Violet’s life, the life and times of the Sixties in general or of the Civil Rights Movement broadly.
It finally became apparent that First Person Girl grew up, in the Midwest, likely Northern Illinois. There are a few lines about listening to the Cubs game but no mention of Ernie Banks. There is a reference of going to Milwaukee, but not to Milwaukee Braves games or seeing Hank Aaron. On page 111 I thought these people were Canadians – a reference is made to “Canadian sophistication.” I was mistaken.
The idle and frequent references to events in the Sixties have no order, no significance and no relevance. They don’t put the reader in the human lives of those times, and they don’t tell what Americans were thinking. While flitting between 2012 and the Sixties, Andersen mentions Le Bron James (305) but fails to mention New York kid, Lew Alcindor [Kareem Abdul-Jabbar], UCLA basketball [nine championships in eleven years] or Cassius Clay [Mohammad Ali]. If Andersen were interested in young forwards playing basketball in the Sixties, he might have mentioned Rick Berry or Julius Erving. NOPE. In an appeal to the modern crowd but conveying nothing, Anderson mentions Mark Zuckerberg (308). The name dropping adds nothing; it tells nothing. It is a waste of ink, paper and distracts from any story of the Sixties. Indeed, while relying heavily on cliches and name dropping, it is important to get everything right and imprudent, lazy and i!rresponsible to use slogans twice: “Hey, hey, LBJ, How many kids did you kill today?” (187, 328)
What wasn’t mentioned about the Sixties? A good economy but not much about the World or even Vietnam. Sports wise omitted were the Boston Celtics, Wilt Chamberlain, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, the New York Mets and the Packers. Movies were mentioned but not Doctor Zhivago, The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Joe or The Last Summer (excellent, brutal, cruel story about social pressure among teenagers). “The Smothers Brothers” TV show is mentioned but not Pat Paulson for President. There are no other presidential candidates in 1968 other than Nixon and Humphrey. There were no gays and lesbians in the Sixties. Andersen apparently was not part of any rioting; he mentions riots but not what it is like to be inside a riot. The April 1968 C!hicago riot is not mentioned.
The research for True Believer is poor. It reveals Andersen had his ears closed; his eyes shut; his mouth covered, his hands in mittens. He was a sheltered teenager who went to Harvard University in 1970 after that school had its campus student uprisings. A book was written and published within a year of those events; it tells of the low-key protests. The other excellent book from 1972 gives a decade’s events at Harvard: The Fall of the American University, Adam Ulam.
Approximately page 250 to page 370 First Person Girl, who has juvenile diabetes, fades. Andersen more or less slips into a third person story. First Person Girl goes to Radcliffe, so is an adjunct of Harvard. A Harvard-Radcliffe “cult” (Andersen’s word) forms, is secret, purportedly disciplined, supposedly motivated, presumably knowledgable, financially capable and with the means to change the world. They use artistic license from The Theater: Since everyone in the cult is highly educated, there are show-off references by cult members about other cult members – characters from Shakespeare’s plays like Mr. Indecisive of the cult, Hamlet. That is an idea for use in a movie, but it does not reflect any reality of cults or from any group of the Sixties. The Shakespeare references indicate Andersen’s abysmal failure to research any revolutionary or radical movement or group which was successful. He could have started by reading the writings of Harvard professor, Adam Ulam.
Cults exist through psychological and physical coercion and force, and emotional dependency. Add ideology and there is an political dimension. In the 1960s drugs were used to create submissive, compliant beings, following a Leader to Earth’s end. But drugs and diabetes? First Person Girl does drugs and gets by. Another cult tool was sex, especially with the Leader. Sex sealed relationships and secured devotion. First Person Girl had a boyfriend. I infer he was a Leader of some sort, so he had her exclusively. Anderson doesn’t tell his cult-sex-life, but no doubt Boyfriend was actively porking everything he could. Was there an emotional toll on First Person Girl?
It is difficult to determine which true beliefs anyone in the cult had because there seems no Leader, no herald, no Joshua. The cult decides to assassinate LBJ, President of USA. Because of this limited goal Andersen’s cult is mislabeled. It is closer to a cell. The cult plans, gets prepared, gets into place: LBJ gives his quitter speech on March 31, 1968, and everyone in the cult realizes the assassination should no longer be carried out. Members listen to a Bob Dylan song, and one or two cult members sing along.(336-337) That’s not much of a cult, a cell or any other type of group, except a bunch of spoiled, rich Ivy League Ivory Tower morons occupying this asshole story.
Andersen, though, does not give up. The story is wanting, but he wants a longer book. He drops in more events, and more names. Page 393 students of Harvard (I believe) chant: “Dare to struggle, dare to win, Charles Manson, live like him.” It is extremely doubtful this was chanted in the fall of 1968 or any other time in public. Charles Manson was completely unknown in 1968. The Tate-Labianca murders happened in August 1969. Manson and those murders were anathema to the New Left. When Bernadine Dohrn [name dropped along with Bill Aryes in True Believer, 110] praised the death of Sharon Tate, Leftists said about Dohrn, Aryes and their followers, “The Weather Vain:” “You don’t need to be a Weatherman to know who the assholes are.”
The next page, 394, Andersen bounces to March 1970 – townhouse in New York City explodes; it is a bomb making factory. He regresses to November 1969 with revelation of the massacre on My Lai, Vietnam. He rushes into the future to the killings at Kent State, May 4, 1970. This whipsawing is nonsensical, word wasting, page filing and reveals Andersen is not writing a novel but is listing events and is making up crap about each happening.
I looked for evidence of research. None. In ACKNOWLEDGMENTS Andersen writes condescendingly, “…there were things I needed to learn about…young women in the 1960s.” [Men have penises; women have vaginas.] “I am grateful to all the women I’ve known – in particular to those I know and love the best [names omitted to protect the unwary] for their specific suggestions and corrections, and for splendidly teaching me day in and day out how the other half lives.”
None of Andersen’s female sources appeared to be around during the Sixties, and Andersen read nothing: Not Betty Friedan, not Robin Morgan, not Valerie Solanas, nothing about SDS and the New Left and not Alice Echol’s excellent book, Dare to Be Bad. A defining moment of the women’s movements occurred at a New Left meeting during the summer of 1967. New Leftists were droning on about issues, agenda and dogma. Shulamith Firestone, a tiny, determined woman, got to the microphone with points she wanted raised and discussed. A guy dismissed her (paraphrased): Don’t bother us little girl. We’re talking about real issues.
From that time on, the New Left, radicals, revolutionaries and other groups had difficulty obtaining women. It was fatal to those causes because women were the oil that allowed the machines to function and keep relations civil. Women, who were conscious [not First Person Girl], were unwilling to be mothers to men their own age. They wanted to be women and adopt other roles as opportunities arose. There were arguments over this stance, and especially about no kitchen duty, no cooking duty, no housework, no typing. None of these female concerns were mentioned in Andersen’s cult or in True Believer. It is too bad because if the women he loved had informed Andersen, True Believer may not have been published.
What sort of research should Andersen have done? I cannot tell which sources are available today. When I wrote Bitch., a period not a dot, a verb not a noun (iBookstore, Michael Ulin Edwards), the Berkeley campus housed the one library with the collection of liberationist and feminist texts which had existed in Berkeley since 1970. I wrote the first draft of Bitch., and I returned to that library for research. It was gone. The books (about 10,000) had been moved.
Whereto? Berkeley was going through a spring cleaning trying to free space for new groups with new interests. Women’s issues were passé, especially the thoughts and imperfect expressions from the late Sixties and early Seventies. The books (and I suppose magazines, articles and pamphlets) went to the main library where they were culled. Not many went into the library collections; some went to other UC libraries. Many of the women’s books were mass market paperbacks, and those were put up for sale, a nickel a piece. If there were no buyers, the books were recycled. I paid five cents, found books in libraries, in used bookstores, in library bookstores and at garage and yard sales. I likely read 500 books and looked at another 500.
Reading True Believer, I have no inkling, no sense, no impression that Kurt Andersen researched any issue on any point he mentions: Hippies, Street People, the New Left, Harvard student protests, women, Vietnam, anti-war movement and marches, and liberation issues. He didn’t live among any of those people, so he lacks experience on that level. He may have vast experience with one issue: drugs.
In True Believer an issue of writing arises. Any author, especially someone writing a memoir as a novel, has a voice separate and apart from the character in the novel. Mark Twain did it as well as can be done in Huckleberry Finn. In True Believer there is no indication that Andersen keeps himself separate from First Person Girl’s voice. Andersen never abandons the author’s voice. Indeed none of the characters have his or her own voice. An example:
“As the Movement grew, and antiwar protests became regular bi-annual festivals of rage,
and we learned from the Seed, Chicago’s new underground paper, that Negro riots were
actually black rebellions, the adults grew less indulgent. I saw a poll showing that in the
last two years, Americans’ support for civil rights demonstrations – civil rights – had dropped
from 42 percent to 17 percent. Which meant push was coming to shove. Alex had mentioned
McGeorge Bundy, President Johnson’s national security adviser, because I’d just written an
editorial for the school paper arguing that New Trier’s speaking invitations to him and the White
House press secretary should be withdrawn. ‘These two men,’ I wrote, ‘share responsibility
for the death’s of eight thousand American soldiers and the murder of untold thousands of
Vietnamese women and children. While freedom of speech is important, refusing to condone
needless death can be more important. As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes
once said, if words ‘create a clear and present danger [such] that they will bring around…
substantive evils,’ they should be prohibited.’ My mother called my article ‘extremely well
written.’ That was also what she’d said about my editorial in the fall approving the assassination
of South Africa’s apartheidist prime minister. But this time she said that my argument struck
her as ‘nutty as a fruitcake…’”
True Believer, p. 211-212.
Mamas are prone to undue, unwarranted praise. It’s good that this family cliche is in the text for a personal touch. This paragraph begins with the Movement (Leftist, anti-war, civil rights, Black – which one?). It races onto Negro city riots and Underground Newspapers. It mentions Americans ebbing support for civil rights. There’s push “coming to shove,” a cliche with references to nothing in the book and nothing during the Sixties or in the present day. There are invitations to Presidential aides, and how wrong those invitations are. Next is First Person Girl’s editorial, mentioning freedom of speech and Oliver Wendell Holmes. There is apartheid in South Africa and the assassination of a prime minister, the family reaction and the potential Generation Gap.
There is a lot going on in this paragraph, too much for a 16 year old girl(210). It’s 1965: First Person Girl graduates in 1967; she goes to college. If she is referring to anti-war protests, the first large scale “festivals of rage” happened nationally after she graduated from high school. The American death toll in Vietnam reached 8,000 in the Spring of 1966. Chicago had its first large scale race riots after she was at Radcliffe. And it is inconsistent for a James Bond fan in 1966 to be editorializing about the Vietnam when alternative lifestyles may not have been part of her life. Indeed, First Person Girl seems uncomfortable describing any alternative lifestyles as well as living within them. Her life at Radcliffe in the cult seems sterile. Take something as simple as hair. Did First Person Girl have long hair? Did she thread-braid it? Moreover, would First Person Girl think this paragraph should be in her memoirs, thus representing any part of her life? Certainly her mother wouldn’t say it was well-written.
Instead it is the author’s voice the reader is hearing.