The Sixties Had Many Struggles. Here’s One I Missed.

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

When I landed at the University of Wisconsin in 1965 I was a virgin, never smoked dope, had never been drunk, and had never heard of Vietnam. Even if I knew we were at war, it wouldn’t have bothered me. War preserves our freedom, right? Within weeks, I saw a picket line, my first warning that life was about to change. Soon I grew long hair and visited the record store every day hoping for new albums by the Beatles, Stones, and Bob Dylan.

Our cultural fever was fearless and far ranging. We hated war and poverty. We intended to eliminate them. We hated the stupid rules that restricted sex, so we ignored them. We were going to change consciousness itself. With the help of marijuana, I broke loose from old fashioned notions of personal responsibility. Money? Who needs it? When I read my first book by Alan Watts, I saw exactly what he meant. All of life is an illusion and we young people were reinventing it. What an exciting time!

Sweaty palms and gut wrenching drama: confronting “The Man”

To convince The Man of our new truths, we locked arms outside classrooms and refused to let anyone in. When police stormed the building, beating us with clubs, we ran in disbelief, furious and confused. Didn’t they see we were right? That conflict between two opposing desires is the basis for the dramatic tension that has driven stories since the beginning of time. It is the reason many of us know we lived through some good stories.

However, despite all the story material provided by those colorful times, memoir writers seem to be avoiding the era. After reading hundreds of memoirs, I can only think of two that took me all the way into the mentality. **

Where are all the other boomers who will provide their own experience during that time? Recently, I found a fascinating stash, like an archeological treasure buried in the minds of its authors. It’s a collection of short stories and poems called The Times They Were a Changing, co-edited by Linda Joy Myers, Amber Lea Starfire and Kate Farrell. I settled back and went for the ride, turning the pages from one good story to the next. The stories not only took me into the past. They offered me the wisdom and uplift that I gain when I set aside my own point of view and see the world through other eyes.

Women Wanted to Change the World, Too

In these stories, I learn that women needed to confront the Man in a very different way than I did. They had to confront him when they asked their fathers what subject they were allowed to major in. They had to confront him when they asked for permission to leave their dorms at night or which job they were permitted to perform. But these women had drunk the potion of “we can change the world.” Why not change gender relationships too?

Like the war protestors, they discovered that The Man fought back. When Dorothy Alexander tells her dad that she is no longer restricted by the old ways, he screams at her. Get out of my house. I never want to see you again. Reading that scene, I vicariously feel her anger, pride, and fear, every bit as much as when I stood in front of a club-wielding cop. I turn the page. Tell me more!

Before I started gathering my past into a memoir, the sixties felt like a big, fascinating, mess, during which I joined a generation who thought that the path to wisdom required that we destroy the path. What did we end up with after all that drama? Most of our pipe dreams went up in smoke. We didn’t eliminate poverty or war, and drugs turned out to be less groovy than they first appeared. And in just six years, from 1965 to 1971, I effectively dismantled my life, forcing me to start over.

During my journey back to wholeness, I discovered that the best way to improve my relationship to the world was to tune in to the stories people tell about themselves and each other. For example, this method helped me improve my relationship with my older sister.

She seemed to be angry with me all the time, but I could never figure out why. I asked her to meet me for lunch so we could try to get to the bottom of it. The clatter of the restaurant faded into the background as we began to tell each other about childhood. She revealed her resentment about the way Dad gave his sons more freedom to choose schools and majors than he gave her. I was surprised and told her I had never noticed he was granting us more privilege. She was surprised by my lack of complicity. Now, years later, I finally saw the pain his preferences had caused.

Our conversation helped me understand why my sister resented me, and gave me my first personal understanding of what it felt like to be a woman before the shift. How could I have missed the whole thing? I couldn’t answer that question until I read the following story in The Times They Were a Changing.

Author Judith Barrington describes a crowded party, with loud music, booze and dancing. All the participants are female, bursting with the power of expressing themselves without worrying about the opinions of men. They wear blue jeans and some of them have even disrobed in an expression of defiance against all the crap about their bodies imposed by men. There is a commotion at the door. Two women have just entered dressed in fashionable dresses, makeup, coiffed hair and other symbols of male domination. The chatter in the crowd turns to a commentary about this turn of events. Why are they here? These aren’t feminists. Maybe they aren’t women at all. Maybe they are men dressed as women in order to crash our party. One of the women in the crowd says disdainfully, “Bloody men think they belong everywhere.”

The comment yanked me out of the story and brought me back to my body, where I found myself in an awkward position. I am a man. I can’t change my gender. Does that mean I’m not even welcome to keep reading? Of course not, I thought. That’s the power of reading. We set ourselves aside and go for the ride. So I climbed back into the story. Inside I see men as the enemy. In my state as an empathetic reader, I find that interesting, even mind expanding. I open my mind and drink in the mood of the time.

When I finish reading, I know more than I ever did back then. And my ignorance now makes better sense. If such parties were taking place at the University of Wisconsin, I certainly didn’t know about them. And if women were meeting to demand their rights, I didn’t know a thing about it. Despite the many benefits I have enjoyed as a male in a post-liberation world, I had no clear image of how we arrived here, nor was I able to empathize with the situations that women experienced during that turmoil.

Sharing stories heals wounds. After my sister and I processed the sins of our father, I told her that even though flying from Philadelphia to Madison may have looked glamorous, I regretted that I had more freedom than I knew how to handle. She had never realized how lost I felt there. By the end of the conversation, we understood each other. We’ve been good friends ever since.

After reading The Times They Were a Changing, I now have a much better understanding of the experiences of women in my generation. And even though I didn’t have a chance to witness the transition when it was first happening, now through the magic of memoirs, I am invited as a guest with a front row seat.

The Times are Changing Again

The title of this collection is for me a double entendre. In addition to the obvious meaning that the times back then were changing, I am fascinated by the changes today. The Memoir Revolution, in which we are participating right now, has fewer photo-opportunities. I doubt that I would watch a movie about a crowd of writers sitting at their desks. But inwardly this revolution overflows with all the drama that life has to offer. A million aspiring memoir writers are collecting their lives into the shape of a Story and imagining the possibility of sharing those stories with each other. Our new revolution liberates us from silence, lets us step out of our cliques and pains and ushers in an era of cultural dialog, with mutual respect and the exhilarating power of page turning stories.

Writing Prompt
What time in your life are you convinced “no one will ever understand.” Even if you can’t imagine ever writing it, set aside your doubts and try writing one scene. Think of any time related to that experience even if it seems too trivial to bother with, or at the other extreme, even if it seems too intense to ever capture in words. Write that scene by simply reporting what you were seeing, feeling, and thinking. Free-write. Don’t worry about excellence. It’s just a first draft. When you finish writing that scene, consider the powerful result. You have begun to translate a memory into a story. Later, by learning to polish and revise it, you can develop it into something with a beginning, middle and end, or you can add it as a chapter to a longer work. Feel free to type your brief episode into the comments below.

Reading Prompt
Look for memoirs that describe events similar to the one you experienced. Read the memoir, and then think about how that author translated life into story. If you want to ask about a memoir related to your situation, feel free to leave it in the comment section. Perhaps I or another commenter can offer a suggestion.

Notes

Click here to the read the blog about Times They Were a Changing for more information about the editors, contributors and the book itself.

** Memoirs I’ve reviewed about the sixties: Bill Ayers, Fugitive Days, takes me into his over-the-top war protests. Read my essay:  in Read banned memoirs: Criminal or Social Activist?  And Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God offers a look at growing up in a Christian commune named L’Abri in Switzerland. Read my essay, Memoir of a commune stirs hope for a healthier world

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

24 thoughts on “The Sixties Had Many Struggles. Here’s One I Missed.

  1. Thanks, Jerry, for your deep and honest appreciation of the Times They Were A-Changing anthology. I recall at one of our book launch events in October, one of the male guests commented that women’s experiences in the ’60s and ’70s were more “convoluted” and needed to be “worked out.” Second wave feminism was a more complex path to change and began individually, then collectively. That’s why (to me) these personal stories and poems work: they depict the singular stance that each woman took that together created social history and cultural reform. So, the memoir revolution can become a social force as well–particularly in a themed anthology with a clear focus.

  2. I enjoyed reading this post, Jerry. You have a grasp of the power of the sixties combined with the power of story. If, as someone has said, writers “live twice,” then memoirs allow all of us, especially those of the same era, live twice also.

    Right on! and Write on!

  3. I loved hearing your thoughts and reflections from this time period, Jerry. How great that you were able to sit down with your sister and learn more about her perspective as a girl growing up with a limited sense of freedom and potential in comparison to her brothers. Thank you again for your generosity in hosting Times They Were A-Changing on this blog tour.

  4. Hi Kate, Thanks so much for your part in creating Times They are a Changing. It is a great addition to my memoir library and a great expansion of my understanding!

    Hi Shirley, Thanks for your comment. Yes, memoir writers live twice! Or maybe three times. First while living it. Second while writing it. Third by using the published stories as a conversation starter to share that period with others. I’m going to write more about Times They are a Changing, and will say more about how memoirs help us reach out to others from our same era. “Cohorts” as the statisticians call us.

    Best wishes
    Jerry

  5. My pleasure, Renee. Thanks for having me. And thanks for appreciating the healing that took place with my sister. I felt grateful to her for opening her heart. By swapping stories we were able to collect them into one larger one that included us both. It was a lovely opportunity to grow together. Best wishes, Jerry

  6. I can certainly identify with your sister, Jerry. I began wishing you were my brother back then. I was the middle child between two brothers. At some point in the sixties and seventies, I gave up trying to earn their respect, gain their permission–even acknowledgement. They were another version of the Man and most likely didn’t realize it. On the other hand, their stiff competition and lack of support did toughen me. I was learning from them and their sense of entitlement all along.

  7. I have to admit I had trouble relating to the turbulence of the stories, well-told though they are. I spent that era sequestered in an insular community, far from cities and universities. I spent most of those years raising babies and doing the PTA, League of Women Voters thing before I went back to school. When invited to join a CR group, I declined. I didn’t want to risk becoming unhappy with the life I had. I actually LIKED the way things were.

    Through the years, friends who were like me back then caught up with the times, but gently, gradually, without the kicking and screaming. We feel fortunate to have escaped soul-bruising events.

    But where is the drama in that? Who wants to read a story of happy, uncomplicated home life? So, I suppose the drama will win in the history texts, even though it’s at best half the story.

  8. Jerry, Here’s something I cannot really explain. I was born in 1957, lived in Nigeria until 1963, then Paris until 1971. I lived in the UK and attended college there in 1974. I’m an only child, but never felt repressed or that as a woman, I wasn’t allowed to study what I wanted to, or that men in the workforce wouldn’t let me do express myself or be a strong person. In fact, it wasn’t until I moved to the U.S. in 1983, that I felt women were treated differently in the workforce than men. This comes as a surprise to me today, when I look back at my youth. A great post as usual, Jerry.

  9. Hi Sharon, It doesn’t surprise me to learn that your life was quite different during the 60s than authors of Times They Were a Changing. That’s exactly what the Memoir Revolution is all about. It’s so tempting to see each other in broad swaths. The Memoir Revolution makes it possible for each of us to tell our individual stories, to differentiate ourselves and show our own journeys.

    As for whether or not one person’s life was more colorful than another, that’s also understandable. Some of us wear our drama in external passion plays. Others travel slower, more internal roads, that might not lend themselves to the shock of a short story but might require the longer, more methodical unfolding of the full length memoir. (I’m going to write a post about short stories versus full length memoirs next week.)

    Best wishes,
    Jerry

  10. Hi Sonia,

    Thanks for the compliment, and thanks for this fascinating synopsis of your journey. Very few of us are lucky enough to be able to say our early lives read like a geography lesson. I try to imagine how mind-expanding it must have been to see all those cultures on the journey to adulthood. And then I give up. My mind can’t stretch that far. It is indeed surprising that you didn’t feel the confinement imposed on women though. It’s another example of the vast individuality of experience. Hopefully someday you will write a multinational coming of age story.

    Best wishes,
    Jerry

  11. Sharon, I wonder if we could form a “cohort” of the boomers who were not rebellious at all or were only semi- or selectively rebellious. I am going to see if I can tap into some energy here, because I think there actually might have been a “silent majority” or at least a “less noisy large minority” that hasn’t yet been heard from in our generation. What do you think? Jerry, any thoughts?

  12. Hi Sharon, Sonia, and Shirley, Thanks for sharing your experiences of a quieter and more contented ’60s & ’70s as young women. Those decades were different for each one of us, as we editors certainly discovered by reading the hundreds of submissions to the anthology! But you’re all correct that most submissions focused on the social change that called into question the limited traditional options for women as well as other human rights issues. As editors we wanted to preserve that legacy before our generation of women and their stories faded from memory. The anthology does not, however, negate the truth of the “silent majority” of young women then who did not confront the status quo. What the book points out with its many authentic voices is the bravery and risk taking it took for women to be accepted in other roles and perceived in new ways. The discussion about how women continue to discover their place in 21st century society continues. That’s what we hope for this book: to stimulate discussion and share all the ways that women seek identity and self fulfillment, then and now!

  13. Hi Shirley,

    Thanks for adding your perspective. And thanks for asking my opinion about a different sort of cohort. It’s funny you should ask. I am writing a follow-up post about Times They Were a Changing in which I suggest that one of its subtexts is “these are great times for boomers to try to figure out their lives and share their findings so we can all figure it out together”

    Even if we didn’t all join sitins, we have lived parallel lives, seeing history unfold at the same pace. Our parents saw WWII the same number of years before we were born, we were in the same period of our lives when the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan, we were around the same age when Kennedy was shot, around the same age when we needed to figure out how to raise a family, and now we’re around the same age trying to figure out things like retirement, and life review

    All that common ground means we can be fascinated by each other’s stories.

    However, some life situations lend themselves to anthologies better than others. Times They are a Changing has a powerful built-in theme. I suspect another cohort with powerful stories would be parents who saw their kids crash and burn during that period. (I try to imagine what my poor parents went through.) Or children raised by boomers – yikes. (See In Spite of Everything by Susan Gregory Thomas for a good example.) Not every type of situation would be good in an anthology. I can’t imagine long slow recover-from-grief books like Swimming with Maya by Eleanor Vincent, Leaving the Hall Light On by Madeline Sharples, or coming of age stories like Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt or transition to adult stories like Wild by Cheryl Strayed as short stories. They draw their power from the sheer passage of time.

    In another followup article, I’m going to talk more about the differences between short stories and book length memoirs. Short stories work powerfully when they are about powerful events. For slower, deeper relationship between author and reader, the longer form is better.

    I hope this adds some interesting perspective to your interesting question.

    Best wishes,
    Jerry

  14. Another angle yet unexplored is the experience of men in the Woodstock generation and especially the feminist era. I know from hearing stories from male friends and stories from students that that was not an easy time for anyone. Many men felt unjustly accused, or like you, Jerry, were innocently oblivious.

    If you read between the line, Boyd Lemon does a yeoman’s job in DIGGING DEEP of giving both sides as he examines his male role in the dissolution of three marriages. His focus is on himself, and to his credit, he does not point fingers, but it’s easy to see that each of his wives could have handled her side more effectively. Much of the story in each case can be traced a myriad of facets of gender role expectations.

    So it’s the collection of stories from all sources that give a holographic view of the era. Shirley, your concept rocks. Let’s get that boat in the water.

    And Jerry, get the guys going from your side.

  15. I think we have demonstrated here how much energy there is in our memories, from all perspectives. I really enjoyed reading The Times They Were A-Changing, which in itself is a kaleidoscope of stories. I see myself in the middle of the upheaval — a war protestor who didn’t engage in the drug/sexual revolution culture but was nevertheless influenced by the times. We all were. That’s the interesting part of this “boat” to me, Sharon. No matter where we were situated, we did not escape completely. More to come. Let’s stay in touch. Thanks, Jerry, for extending the “revolution” to all of us.

  16. Hi Sharon,

    In Shirley’s current post she describes an example of what you are talking about. Denis O’Neill, author of WHIPLASH: When the Vietnam War rolled a hand grenade into the Animal House is inviting stories of those who remember the day of the lottery in 1969. I don’t believe his invitation is limited just to guys. The mothers, girl friends, spouses, and sisters of those affected by the lottery might also have powerful memories.

    The interesting thing about this call for stories is that it appeals to a day where life itself was on the line. Like the famous day of Kennedy’s assassination, or 9/11, powerful memories often center around life and death. So when you and Shirley start your project of gathering stories for an anthology, keep in mind that readers expect high stakes.

    The editors of Times They Were a Changing had an excellent intuition about this requirement. All the stories had terrific conflict. Note for example, Linda Joy’s story about defying her own sense of propriety and posing naked. It is not a life and death situation, but remember Jerry Seinfeld’s joke about fear of public speaking. He says more people at a funeral want to be in the coffin than want to give the eulogy. I suspect that this holds true for giving the eulogy naked.

    Best wishes,
    Jerry

  17. Jerry
    I’m 70 and writing my memoirs here in Madison,Wisconsin. In the 60’s I lived San Francisco as flower child active in the anti-war movement. I’ve written a few short pieces about that era but always feel like it’s so big, it’s hard to convey how much of another world it was. I’m looking forward to reading The Times They are A Changing as well as keeping on trying to get my own experience into words.

    Sara

  18. Hi Sara,

    Nice to meet you. We crossed paths. After Madison, I moved to Berkeley for a couple of years to see if I could find the secret of life. It turned out not to be there. And I just missed flower power. Yes, they were huge times. I suspect you will get some good flashbacks from Times They Were a Changing. And it is hard to convey, but not impossible. Just tell your corner of it. Let the collected memoirs of a bunch of us overlap. We lived through the era together. Now we have to work together to tell the whole story.

    Best wishes,
    Jerry

  19. Hi Sara,
    Thanks for your interest in the era and our anthology! When the three of us editors sat down to discuss those times, we were sincerely amazed at all that happened simultaneously.

    That’s when we developed our website with five different themes, just to get our arms around the many moving parts during this short time span. Here’s that link: http://www.timestheywereachanging.com/themes/

    We wanted to assist writers like you in finding themselves in the whirl of change and provide a context for a woman’s perspective, then to pinpoint a moment that changed her life or her understanding, some pivotal moment. Perhaps you could use our website as a organizing tool for your own memoir of the ’60s.

    This week is a great time to purchase an eBook edition! Only 99-cents until Friday, 12/6, a holiday sale through our publisher, She Writes Press (Berkeley).

    All the best,
    Kate

  20. HI Jerry!

    I love your article–as always, you go into such depth about your reflections on the times, the layers of psychology and behavior that are a part of all that we humans do. I liked hearing how it was for you, the ways you were lost and seeking and searching, as many of us were then. So much was changing all at once–sexual mores, attitudes toward war, government, “the establishment,” Finding our identity as a whole person was a full time job! Men and women were equally lost, though women were trying to break through a very patriarchal system. Men were too, those who were artists, or were sensitive, or gay or different. Anyone of a different race struggled to figure out where and how to speak, or if to speak at all.

    I had always carried mixed feelings about the era, though the predominant one was that of joy– because of the era of my young adulthood, I came to be who I am now–and the idea that you could be a woman and a therapist or a writer was directly from the consciousness movement of the 70s.

    It was a joy to work with Kate and Amber to solicit and respond to the stories we collected, and to read all of them! We learned so much about what others were doing, their challenges, and their joys and sorrows. Each of us has a patch of the whole quilt that made up those times. Thank you for participating with us as we celebrate the voices of women, and men, who helped to change the world–and in many ways, as time has gone by, the changes were positive.

    Thanks to this anthology, I’m now writing a new memoir about the 60s and 70s–very challenging to remember some of the tougher moments when everything you knew or believed in was stripped away, and you had to find your way.
    Very funny comment about the eulogy!

  21. Thanks for this note, Linda Joy. I feel from the quality and passion of Times They Were a Changing that you all had a wonderful time producing it. Hmm. You raise an important point. The sixties, if taken as a thing in itself, was just a crazy snapshot. Memoirs help us keep moving and growing through those peak moments and on to the next step. I look forward to reading about the next period of your life.

    Best wishes,
    Jerry

  22. Jerry and all, I apologize for this late comment — I have been out of the country and just today made it to an Internet cafe to try to catch up.

    Jerry, thank you for your thoughtful post, which demonstrates not only the power of the time for you personally, but also the power of reflection in memoir. I was a young teenager during much of the era’s upheaval; because of this, I feel that those times formed the frame through which I perceive the world, even today.

    I enjoy reading the wonderful discussion here, and though I don’t have the time right now to respond to everyone’s comments I want to thank you all for sharing your perspectives and thoughts about your own experiences. Dramatic or not, those of us who lived through those times were touched by them in some way.

    It’s the very diversity of these stories that gives Times They Were A-Changing its power and appeal.

  23. Thanks for stopping by, Amber. It’s a pleasure to “hear” your voice in this great discussion. One fun thing about the anthology is that comes with a sort of built-in community. I feel like I’m attending one of those parties just by virtue of reading all these perspectives. 🙂 Best wishes, Jerry

Leave a Reply