I remember the hypnotic appeal of Oliver Stone's 1991 movie The Doors—part of it due to Val Kilmer's mesmerizing reincarnation of Jim Morrison, and the rest to the tidal pull of nostalgia. It was a nostalgia all the more powerful because it involved a longing for a past that was not quite my own. Just 13 in 1968, I experienced the visionary energy of the period we call the Sixties mainly as an observer. But its ideas shaped my views, and its excitement made all the successive decades seem sadly humdrum.
How much more of a letdown life must have been for older baby boomers—for those who participated most fully in the radical politics and cultural upheavals of the time. How have they adapted? What's become of their energy and commitment? These are the provocative questions Sandra Gurvis sets out to answer in her collection of oral histories, Where Have All the Flower Children Gone?
Gurvis, unlike me, was there—in fact, she was a freshman at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, on May 4, 1970, when National Guard troops gunned down student protesters at nearby Kent State ("four dead in Ohio," as Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young were to sing). The shootings "really fueled my passion to explain and understand this era," Gurvis writes, and the current quagmire of Iraq evoked for her the divisiveness of the Vietnam War. Fittingly then, her book begins with interviews with Guardsmen and student radicals, among them Mark Rudd and Bernadine Dohrn, and includes a chapter emphasizing comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq. Former Columbia University SDS leader Rudd now calls himself "a foot soldier for peace," and onetime Weathermen refugee Dohrn notes that she's on her way to protest torture training at Fort Benning, Georgia. For balance, Gurvis interviews former campus conservatives, many of them now libertarians, about their political choices.
Much of this material is familiar enough, and Gurvis's brief entries for each person don't add much. In fact, the brevity of the interviews (along with sloppy editing) is the book's chief shortcoming. Though Gurvis covers a lot of ground, she rarely gives us enough from any one person—not enough of their voice, nor their story—to create really compelling narratives. A notable exception is the story of Myra Joy Aronson, a fellow Miami University alumna, who was once photographed being dragged out of an ROTC building. Never married, she led a vibrant existence, traveling widely, going to work for a software company in Cambridge, and throwing a marvelous, multigenerational party for her 50th birthday. She died on 9/11, a passenger on American Airlines Flight 11. In interviews with Aronson's friends and relatives, Gurvis gives us a rich portrait not just of grief but of a life well-lived.
Aronson's fate, of course, was more dramatic than most. In chapters such as "Communes and Former Radicals: Selling Out or Stuck in Time?" and "And It's One, Two, Three: Draft Evaders, Expatriates, and Conscientious Objectors," we see how choices made in the '60s continue to mark both individuals and the culture. It's fascinating to be reminded that Twin Oaks, the Farm, and other "intentional communities" still exist, as do regular gatherings of Deadheads and others who comprise the eclectic Rainbow Family Tribe of Living Light. Even more striking are tales of the draft evaders and resisters who made their way to Canada and had to forge new identities.
In the end, though, Gurvis struggles to create a typology of baby boomers, and even with interviews of their parents and children the book remains far from the final word on the subject. Simone Spring, who settled with her draft-evader husband, Steven, in Toronto, probably summarizes the consensus best. "It was a magical time," she tells Gurvis, "and I don't regret any of it. We thought we could change the world, and I suppose we did, in a small way." Not a bad legacy.
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.