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Utopian Memories: Micah Perks, 6 (left), and her sister, Bekah, 4, mug for the camera in a picture taken in 1969 by their father.

The Kids Are All Right

Memoirists Lisa Michaels and UCSC's Micah Perks compare notes on their hippie childhoods

By Patrick Sullivan

EVERY CHILDHOOD has surreal moments. But for sheer jaw-dropping astonishment, the memories of Micah Perks are hard to beat. For instance, there was the time her father took a group of his young female students on a clothing-optional boating trip.

"Twelve bare-breasted rowers and my father their commander, drunk and meandering on the flat, green waters of Lake Champlain, the Adirondacks on one side, the Green Mountains on the other," writes Perks, now 38 and a teacher of fiction writing at UC-Santa Cruz, in Pagan Time: An American Childhood, her new memoir. "Fishermen and ferryboat tourists stare, shade their eyes, pick up their binoculars. A new day has dawned."

Perks' mom skipped this trip, for some reason.

On another occasion, Dad passed out guns and knives to his students (who included juvenile delinquents and drug addicts) and told them to hunt in the woods for their supper. Another day, Dad divided the commune into two warring camps who fought a pitched battle using bags of cow shit, firecrackers and a football full of gunpowder.

Hard to imagine now, perhaps, but this was business as usual during the author's childhood on her family's '60s-era commune, a radical school for troubled children run by her parents in the Adirondack wilderness.

Perks was hardly alone in her unorthodox childhood. Lisa Michaels of Healdsburg has also written a revealing memoir--Split: A Counterculture Childhood--about growing up in the chaotic whirlwind of the '60s counterculture.

These memoirs will not get the David Horowitz seal of approval. Perks and Michaels have written frank but mostly sympathetic accounts of their parents. Their books offer far more wide-eyed wonder than bitterness--and just about zero self-pity or neoconservative recrimination.

"I don't judge my parents," says Perks. "I think they were passionate people who tried really hard. They made some mistakes, but they also did some great things."

Lisa Michaels
Childhood's End: Author Lisa Michaels offers a wry look at her life as a wild child growing up in the 1960s counterculture in her memoir, 'Split.'

Wild As a Baby Goat

Michaels' Split was named a New York Times Notable Book for its vivid account of a childhood spent in the antiwar movement. Her mother--a daughter of privilege determined, as Michaels puts it, to "spit out the silver spoon"--was once arrested at a protest on the steps of the White House. Her father joined the Weathermen and eventually received a two-year prison sentence for his part in an antiwar protest.

As a little girl, Michaels toured the country in a customized mail truck, was captured in a Life magazine photo waving the North Vietnamese flag at protests, spent time in communes, ate whole sticks of butter and generally grew up "as wild as a baby goat," as she writes in Split.

Now 35 and living in Healdsburg with her spouse and twin 1-year-old boys, Michaels recalls meeting other counterculture kids while touring bookstores with Split.

Fashionable women wearing Gap clothes would approach her after readings to discuss childhoods much like hers. "To look at them, you'd never guess they were once snarl-headed toddlers living in a van," Michaels says with a laugh.

"I was surprised to find out how much we had in common, how many things rang a bell for them," she says. "When they grew up, they wanted a lot of stability. But they still shared many of their parents' core values."

"There was a real sense of gratitude for the freedom and respect they were given as tiny children," she continues. "And that is certainly true of me."

Perks says children of the radical '60s have some distinguishing characteristics. "They tend to be slightly cautious, slightly ironic and also a little morally anguished," she notes. "But also I find them really--ironically, maybe--responsible."

Redwoods Ramble

In conversation, both Michaels and Perks return repeatedly to the advantages and pleasures of growing up in relative freedom. "I think I felt really powerful and happy most of my childhood," Perks says. "The problem was that my childhood put me at odds with the rest of society. ... So we who grew up with that experiment had to transition into a very different world, and that culture shock was very difficult, at least for me."

Michaels tells a story that, for her, sums up her mother's approach to parenting. Once, on a family trip through the mountains near Santa Cruz, Michaels was allowed to put on her best dress--a chiffon outfit that she'd recently worn to a family wedding--and run wildly through the redwoods.

"My mother let me run around in the woods until it was ripped and muddy. I knew even at that age what a generous thing that was to do," Michaels says. "Some parents would have been obsessed with saving that dress for the future. But she was more interested in letting me have my fantasy of being the fairy princess in the redwoods."

Memory is a notoriously tricky thing. Writing a memoir is even trickier. Publicly exposing the intimate workings of family life tends to be hard on everyone involved.

"My dad had a hard time with the book," Michaels says. "He found it really painful to be made into a character. I think both parents might have, on some level, come to a point where they regretted putting so much emphasis on letting me express myself."

Perks says writing Pagan Time took five years of often painful effort. "It was difficult and also exciting," Perks explains. "It was really a transformative experiment. I think I'd fetishized my childhood, made it overly important. I thought it made me different from everyone else. In writing, I kind of exploded that childhood. I realized my childhood was in some ways a quintessential American childhood."

The quintessential childhood? That seems guaranteed to raise eyebrows. Yet Perks maintains it's true. Her childhood, she says, was just an exaggerated version of a story that's always occurred in this country.

"What came together in the '60s wasn't some weird, anomalous moment in our history," Perks says. "It's something that's happened over and over in America: a desire for utopia. From the Colonial period to the religious communities of the 19th century to the '60s, this is a movement that rises up again and again.

"We want to form the perfect community and also escape into the wilderness like Huckleberry Finn."

Michaels, now a mother herself, is trying to combine the advantages of her own childhood with more order and stability. Since her parents were separated by prison and then divorce, one of the most important things she hopes to offer her twin boys is the gift of two loving parents. The author--whose new novel, Grand Ambitions, has just hit the bookstores--says her dad and mom did a remarkably good job of parenting. But she felt the pain of their separation.

"There's something about raising the children that you've made together that's breathtaking to me," she says. "I don't take that for granted at all."

Pagan Time: An American Childhood
By Micah Perks
Counterpoint Press; 160 pages; $23 cloth

Split: A Counterculture Childhood
By Lisa Michaels
Mariner Books; 307 pages; $29 cloth

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From the December 5-12, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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