The Politics of Experience

Posted on May 28, 2012 by

Years ago, I was considering psychology as a career but was diverted by self-doubt and political events.  Here’s a brief sketch of what happened during that period of my life…

At 25 I was brimming with psychological insight.  Or so I thought.

I had graduated from a small liberal arts college in rural Vermont with a senior year paid internship at the Brattleboro probation office supervising delinquent boys.  A year later I was enrolled in a masters program in counseling psychology at an Antioch College satellite campus across the Connecticut River in Keene, New Hampshire.

My background also included experience as a client in individual, couples and group therapy, having already undergone analytic treatments of various sorts.

Moreover, I was a believer in the wave of new practices and approaches sweeping the field in the 1970s and could, with some training, mold myself into a Rogerian, a Fritz Perlsian or even an R.D. Laingian.

Best of all, these therapies had a strong social change component.  We weren’t just treating neurosis, we were “raising consciousness.”

Though I had a knack for observation and interpretation, I held serious doubts about my own maturity and emotional stability.  Perhaps I was too anxious and depressed to improve other peoples’ lives.  I would need more time to tackle my own problems.  If  I was credentialed as a therapist in my 20s, I was afraid I’d suffer an acute case of “impostor syndrome.”

Later, I’d explain my decision to leave graduate school as a realization that the work ahead in psychology would be more “insular” than I could handle.  My conclusion now is that, despite my empathy, I had too many troubles of my own to help others in a clinical, one-to-one setting.

So in the summer of 1976, I made a pivotal career choice and political calculation.   I would take a leave from Antioch and slip into New York City – into midtown Manhattan- and volunteer to work on the advance team of the Jimmy Carter presidential campaign.

I was already quite political, having cut my teeth in the protest era as a pragmatic radical.

My reasoning was simple:

I would be of no use in Vermont – a state with just three electoral votes – which incumbent President Ford would win easily.  In fact, the now reliably blue state wouldn’t turn that way until 1992 (Ford won Vermont in 1976 by nine points).  But New York’s 41 electoral votes were up for grabs in this election and would prove to be pivotal in evicting the republicans from the white house.

My work for the democratic candidate was routine but stirred something in me that psychology couldn’t match.  I was assigned as designated driver to Carter’s Georgia staffers sent north to prepare for the governor’s Labor Day visit to the once-great union city.  Labor leaders were far from thrilled by this nominee.  In fact, declining union influence was already evident in the workplace and in politics.  Four years before, the AFL-CIO had refused to endorse the “dovish” George McGovern and now they were stuck with the moderate governor of a right-to-work state.

But the unions dutifully turned out, marched arm-in-arm with Carter in the traditional Labor Day parade, and then helped push the Georgia Governor over the finish line with a four percent win in New York in November.

I had been only a bit player in the presidential campaign, but felt like I truly belonged in this game.  Psychology, social work and the “helping professions” I could leave to others.  Back in Vermont after the election, I quit grad school and got a night-shift job as a “casual,” sorting mail at a local post office.  During the day, I would write articles for newsweeklies about community issues, culture and politics.

Tiny, beautiful and – above all – accessible,Vermont was a terrific place for a novice “alternative” journalist in the 1970s. The state’s tradition of tolerance and small town democracy attracted and assimilated an assortment of radical urban refugees (though almost all white) eager for life on a “human scale.”

By the late 70s I had found my “beat:” reporting from the capital of  Montpelier (population 8,000), covering the legislature, state government, business, culture and the early phase of what would become Vermont’s transformation as America’s Mecca of progressive politics.

But soon I would leave this idyllic state for Los Angeles – a passage many of my Vermont friends still find baffling more than 30 years later.

It was hard to abandon rural New England for the sprawl and anonymity of Southern California.  Vermonters really were – are – relatively unpretentious, resourceful, and egalitarian (a characterization that doesn’t quite fit the vast population of Los Angeles). Despite cold winters and humid summers, I was comfortable in the northeast.

But not enough to stay.

Below the surface in lonely and alienating L.A. was an intriguing mix of cultures, classes, neighborhoods and work.  As a journalist,  publicist and – eventually – a union “communicator,” I would integrate my working-class past with the region’s political movements.

And though I didn’t become a professional in psychology, I stayed active in that world, too.  Among my unfinished business, I still needed to iron out those kinks in my head.

Next Installment:

Jewish Working-Class Angst

Comments (7)

 

  1. Barton Parks says:

    Lou,

    What delightful reading! To follow your life from when we lost touch in Vermont (upon Windham’s demise, I left for Indiana U) through the years….I greatly appreciate the drama, honesty, and insight in your fascinating story. Keep on making the story and writing it!

    Evelyn and I recall visiting you in L.A. in the early or mid 80′s when my college sent us there for a Paulo Friere workshop, and we have (just barely) stayed in touch since. I read Laborlou.com regularly.

    I have spent my intellectual life struggling to connect what you found too separate: politics and psychology. The influence of Laing and Norman O. Brown never left…

    The best thing that ever happened to me….well, behind Evelyn staying with me, and my body still functioning at 74,
    is “de-institutionalizing” myself 3 years ago. What others call retirement I see as freedom from what are finally oppressively judgmental institutions overwhelmingly preoccupied with their own continuation and willing to use and abuse those they call faculty and students–and who are actually kinds of workers–to perpetuate themselves.

    Any school in this society is an ilnstitution of indoctrination into capitalism, hierarchy, and submission as a way of life.
    No longer am I (unconsciously) intimidated by being there (yes even as a tenured faculty member I was still intimidated to a surprising degree). While there I was often called arrogant for my views; today those same poor beknighted souls would see me as so far beyond arrogance they would say psychotic.

    I did not intend to get into all this but it is morning and I have energy! Just for the heck of it I may send you about ten pages soon which represents the best writing I have done joining our oppressive institutions with psychology…making them essentially one field of study.

    Enough. I surely hope you keep up this kind of writing.

    Barton

    P.s. Landed a summer teaching job in SHanghai,
    China in an English speaking summer school for students planning to come to american universities. Evleyn and I leave June 25, return Aug 20. Coming back we land for a while in SF. Go to sieschool.org, click on international summer school, then Shanghai/East China Normal University, then on faculty….and there is my handsome mug.

  2. Charles King says:

    A Memorial Day post should have some mention of our Armed Services whose sacrifices make this and all other posts possible.

  3. jane summer says:

    beautifully presented and very linear considering you still have knotted brain…keep it that way, much more interesting.

  4. Gavin Koon says:

    It maybe psychology’s loss but definitely labor’s gain. I am glad for one that you chose Los Angeles. In a strange way labor’s goals and difficult road of internal and external politics may mirror (though the names are different) some or part of what you said. Hence the kinship of trying to move forward.

  5. Delightful and insightful! Your study of the science of psychology clearly has benefitted your self-analysis, which tells us as much about ourselves as about you.

    “But soon I would leave this idyllic state for Los Angeles – a passage many of my Vermont friends still find baffling more than 30 years later.” And your NYC friends too! (Writes one of them, now living alone Thoreau-like in a house in the woods in a nature preserve.)

  6. Matt Lesser says:

    I learned new things about what you were doing in your life at this time. I find your writing very insightful and moving.

  7. Being part of Labor since 1985 I find your blogs great and now I know who you are. http://www.usacoffeecompany.com is my husband and we both are involved with Labor and Junkies of anything political.

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