My Life with SDS and the Weathermen
William Morrow. 336 pp. $25.95
April 12, 2008
Chapter OneA Good German
My mother tells this story about dropping me off at the dorm at West 114th Street and Broadway on the first day of Freshman Week. She and my father and I were unloading the car when a kid came up to me and handed me a blue and white beanie, the official headgear of the Columbia College freshman. He said, "We have to wear it all week."
I replied, "That's stupid, I'm not gonna wear that thing!"
Bertha, my mother, looked at Jake, my father, and said quietly, "We're in for trouble."
Actually, my mother had it wrong about my refusal to wear the beanie. It wasn't instinctive rebelliousness; I just didn't want to act like a kid. I had dreamed of this moment throughout my childhood in suburban New Jersey, longing to go off to college and finally not have to pretend to be a child. I'd always felt like a misfit with other kids. Play didn't interest me: I liked to read-history, biography, science, novels-and to work, to chop firewood, to build things. At last I had escaped the loneliness and shame of childhood, and I didn't want this, my coming-of-age moment-my true bar mitzvah, the day I was supposed to become a man-ruined by anything so juvenile as a stupid beanie.
I spent those first months at Columbia roaming the campus and glorying in the great classical brick-and-limestone-faced buildings, the columned libraries, even the herringbone-patterned brick sidewalks. I was awestruck to be part of this mighty international university.
Columbia was built upon one of the highest points in Manhattan, first called Harlem Heights and later Morningside Heights. An early battle of the Revolutionary War, in which the Americans finally proved themselves, had taken place here. Morningside Heights looked out over Harlem, a vast valley of apartment buildings, mostly walk-up tenements, extending miles to the east and north, at the time the largest black ghetto in the United States. Columbia University was the crown set atop the Heights. At the loftiest point on the campus, the central visual focus, loomed the monumental Low Library, the seat of the university's administration, immodestly modeled after the Roman Pantheon, its enormous columns and huge rotunda the symbol of imperial power. All this was mine now.
A few times a week, I would go to class wearing a blue blazer, the official uniform of Columbia College men. Deans held afternoon socials with the students, during which we sat around drinking sherry from crystal goblets. Yes, that was me, a Jewish pisher from the New Jersey suburbs, in a leather armchair, sipping sherry and chatting with a WASP assistant dean about Plato in an oak-paneled lounge like no other room I'd ever been in. Of course I'd never tasted sherry either.
But something gradually began to feel wrong. I'd be sitting in my freshman English class, learning to analyze nineteenth-century British poetry, and suddenly I would be overcome by a wave of despair. Confused questions would pop into my mind: Why am I here, scrunched into a tiny wooden desk in this overheated classroom, pretending to be interested in poetry? Who are these boys sitting next to me in their blue blazers, regimental ties, and pressed slacks? And I also wondered like many an eighteen-year-old guy, why can't I sleep with every girl I meet?
I wandered into the Columbia College Counseling Ser-vice, looking for help. When the counselor asked what was wrong, I told him I was having trouble studying and paying attention in class. "Ah, Freshman Identity Crisis," he said, probably having heard the same story six times that day. I hadn't known there was a name for what I was going through. He asked about my sex life. I said I was depressed about Liliana, my high-school girlfriend who was now at Sarah Lawrence College. I loved her and wanted to stay with her but also wanted to sleep with other women.
He was paying attention now. "So you are having sexual problems," the counselor said. "You would most certainly benefit from analysis."
I thought about this. I had read Freud in high school, and his method had intrigued me: interpretation of dreams, the tripartite personality structure, the whole schmear about the unconscious. Psychoanalysis was the intellectual, even bohemian thing to do in New York City in the forties, fifties, and sixties. It was European. On the other hand, no one in my family had ever been to a shrink, and I wasn't sure I wanted to be the first.
The counselor was way ahead of me. "Are you receiving financial aid to attend Columbia?" he asked.
"No, my parents are paying the whole tuition."
His eyes lit up. "I'd like to refer you to Dr. Robert Liebert, a psychiatrist on our staff. He also sees patients privately."
I spent the Christmas vacation moping around my empty dorm, alone, depressed, not wanting to go home to Maplewood for more than an obligatory half-day visit. When I finally did, I screwed up my courage and told my folks I wanted to see a psychiatrist.
They were stunned. "Only crazy people need psychiatrists," my mother said. "You're not crazy, you've just been reading too many depressing books. I told you not to read that Dostoyevsky and that meshuggener Kafka when you were fifteen." It didn't take me too long to prevail, however, and my parents, ever indulgent, agreed to pay for the psychiatrist, who was not cheap. Two visits per week, at ninety dollars per visit-a lot of money today, but a fortune in 1965.
Dr. Liebert's office was on East Eighty-seventh Street, in a high-rise with a doorman. He was a soft-spoken, balding man in his mid-thirties, calm, deliberative, obviously an intellectual. I enjoyed going to his office, sitting on the expensive leather couch, talking about my dreams and the events of my life. I was an enthusiastic patient, at least at first. Within days, maybe minutes, maybe even before he had met me, Dr. Liebert developed a theory about my character development's having been distorted by my "domineering [read Jewish?] mother" and my "distracted, absent father" who worked all the time. His analysis came straight out of the New York City Freudian casebook. The therapeutic method, I deduced, was to "transfer" my feelings about my father onto Dr. Liebert.
Excerpted from Underground by Mark Rudd Copyright © 2009 by Mark Rudd. Excerpted by permission.
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