Saturday, December 5, 2015

Split: A Counterculture Childhood

Lisa Michaels was born in 1966 to parents deep in the counterculture, her father a radical organizer and her mother looking for a life without strict confines and prescriptions of adult womanhood. In her tender and honest memoir, Split: A Counterculture Childhood, Michaels walks us through the years of growing up between two families and between two worlds, elegantly showing us the no-man’s-land that she occupied in between.

At the age of three, Michael’s father was jailed for revolutionary activities with the Weatherman. Without explicitly saying so, she presents this moment as pivotal in her emotional life, her father leaving for two years and she and her mother moving on as a single unit. Not ever officially married, her parents never needed a legal divorce, and so the jail sentence looms large as the moment of separation in her young world. Over the two years of her father’s absence, her mother floats adrift, with Lisa along, from one commune and compound to another, until she meets Jim and the two begin a relationship that will take them, and Lisa, across country living in a mail truck, ultimately settling in California, investing the last of their capitalist savings in a home.  Upon her father’s release, he spends time in Mexico, with Lisa visiting him, and meets Leslie, with whom he will spend his next twenty years.

Between these two families, Lisa bounces back and forth -- summers always with her father, school years always with her mother -- loved deeply by both, but grounded in neither. By the time her parents have other children, the picture is clear: she has no permanent family. While she visits, her siblings stay home, and while this might seem obvious to an outsider, it left Lisa feeling unclaimed and at sea in turbulent emotional waters. By the time she is herself an adult, she finds all things conventional to be touched by an air of the exotic; manners, fashion, traditions are all alien to her, and they seem forever beyond her grasp.

Michaels does an excellent job of showing us just what is truly broken when we refer to “broken homes,” a phrase that fell out of use as quickly as it appeared, leaving the recipients of the label as outliers once more. For it is not Michael’s parents whose homes are broken: they (re)marry, have children and jobs and schedules and all the trappings of stable life, but Michaels bounces between them, rootless and part-time, her inclusion never quite real. If she has an argument or gets in trouble, there is always another port in the storm to which she can remove herself, and there is little in the way of continuity of either the good emotional foundation or the accountability and rebuilding after teenage wayward anger and rebellion.

It is this context of emotional continuity that she craves, wanting more than ever to become an adult with a tribe, with a series of rules that are stable and unchanging, with a group behind her and beside her, kicking her ass when she needs it, patting her on the back when she succeeds. Without structure, it almost impossible to succeed, though it is very easy to fail, and Lisa feels inept at best by the time she learns to drive, cast out at worst, railing as teenagers so often do, but with far too many targets for her teenage angst.

Though Split is only one woman’s story, it allows us an intimate view behind the curtain of how it felt to be the recipient of the imploded family. All the characters remain true to themselves, and there are no villains; unfortunately, without context there are no heroes, either. The lyric “Nobody’s right / When everybody’s wrong” filtered through my head as I read, providing an era-appropriate soundtrack. Once her parents settle down into their quasi-conventional lives, it seems as though the focus shifts from the Sixties’ anger to a Seventies’ acceptance, giving everyone a pass for their behavior, making the reverse of the lyric just as true, and still as unsatisfying and, ultimately, homeless.