Interview of Charles Degelman by Reinhabitory Institute

Charles Degelman
Charles Degelman

Last month Reinhabitory Institute had the pleasure of interviewing Charles Degelman, a Los Angeles-based writer and editor. He is co-founder of Indecent Exposure Theater Company and teaches screenwriting and communication studies at California State University, Los Angeles. His latest novel, Gates of Eden is published by Harvard Square Editions and won a Silver Medal for historical fiction from the Independent Publisher Book Awards.

Reinhabitory Institute: The multiple protagonists in Gates of Eden are young people coming into adulthood in the 1960s. The novel captures this time of great changes and especially the political awakening of these characters who come from different backgrounds but who are all swept up in the turmoil and possibility of the times. Can you say something about how you came to create these different characters and why you tell the story this way?

Degelman: In order to set a context for our discussion, let me tell you about Gates of Eden and the characters who inhabit the novel. Gates of Eden follows a handful of young rebels who grow up crazed in the conformist claustrophobia of 1950s America. As they grew into awareness, they begin to notice the injustice and inequity in the society that loved to call itself “The American Dream.” They began to notice that the dream often resembled a nightmare, if not for themselves, then for others. Individually and in groups, they began to share their awareness and joined the trickles and torrents that flowed into the resistance, rebellion, and power of the civil rights and anti-war movements.

Gates’ protagonists hail from every class and from everywhere — Texas and Manhattan, the South Side of Chicago, a middle-class Massachusetts suburb. Madeline, a young Greenwich Village poetess from a well-off NYC family, dives underground to muckrake the exploding military-industrial complex. Louis, born to a school teacher in the ghettoes of Chicago, abandons a hard-won education to register voters in Jim Crow Mississippi while his Freedom Summer girlfriend Connie twists her naïve bourgeois idealism into real-world rebellion.

Eddie Carpenter, a working-class kids with a dead end future, joins the Marines. ‘Nam transforms him from battle-hardened Marine to shrewd anti-war strategist while Texas misfit Roger struggles between the jaws of a blackmailing cop father and his dedication to the anti-war movement.

As they become aware of the injustices around them — racism, the threat of nuclear war, the assault on tiny Vietnam — Madeline, Louis, Connie, Roger, all in their early 20s choose resistance over apathy.

As the call to resist brings our comrades together, their paths intertwine, split up, and re-converge. During a time of sexual revolution, they experiment with wild abandon, fall in love, hit the road, sneak across Eastern Europe to Vietnam, all united by their vision of rebellion that will lead to… yes, a revolution that jams the System that brought us the nuclear nightmare, My Lai, and the military-industrial complex.

That being said, I decided to write Gates of Eden after a young theater colleague responded to a reference I made to the anti-war movement. “You guys really did all that?” she asked. “Wow. I just thought you hung around, smoked weed and fucked each other.” Okay, we did plenty of that, too, but this young woman’s cavalier response made me angry, then thoughtful. She was an intelligent, skillful, even talented artist and her ignorance of the anti-war movement was – in some way – not her fault. She had been more than misinformed; she had been disinformed.

I decided to set the record straight, to write a chronicle that might capture the excitement, terror, exploration, dedication and focus that brought millions of students, workers, professionals, children and WW I veterans together, under the greatest of danger. We weren’t beatniks, we weren’t hippies, and we weren’t commies. We shunned labels and became dedicated radicals. I wanted to remind people of that, to cut through the trivialization, the dismissal of a passionate and thoughtful rebellion. The result, years later, surfaced as this novel, Gates of Eden.

The novel captures the ethos of the time when middle class youth like your characters in Gates of Eden — David, a folk singer turned SDS leader, Connie, a civil rights activist and community organizer, and Madeline, a Greenwich Village poet turned underground news reporter — were compelled to question everything about the “American Dream”, and come to grips with the real nightmare, especially racism and the Vietnam war. This was true for millions of people here in the belly of the beast. What response have you gotten from young people today who have read your book?

Harvard Square Editions published Gates of Eden in the aftermath of the first great surge of Occupy Wall Street and I found astounding similarities, differences, and attitudes between our movements and those of a younger generation who took to the streets. The political activism and civil rights movements of the 1960s grew out of the post-WWII power and hegemony that reached its zenith — at least for middle-class America — during a time of prosperity and consumer madness.

This prosperity and the contradictions between wealth and poverty, imperialism abroad and neglect at home, the obscenity and hypocrisy that we came to understand in the ’60s raised our awareness and enabled us to live in a huge junkpile of excess. This excess allowed many of us to live on the fringes of society and turn the mid-century age of consumerism and industry to our own advantage.

In contrast, the conditions seem harsher, the stakes higher for young people today. In the ‘60s and the collapse of the 1970s and dark ages of the 1980s, many of us could fall back into the society, for better or for worse, even after the most radical endeavors came to an end. This was as it should have been. Instead of “selling out,” many of us brought our knowledge, skills and purpose, our highest values and purpose back into society as teachers, environmentalists, community activists, and socially conscious artists.

For today’s young people, I see harsher conditions: The obscene gap between rich and poor has directly impacted their current and future lives. The end game of planetary pollution and global warming, the trivializing of the media, the exploitation of education, the crumbling economy and today’s obfuscating and distracting culture is more sophisticated today than it was back then. The cost of an education is sky high compared to what it was mid-20th century. As in the ‘60s, I think the System’s violent response to Occupy Wall Street showed us how quickly the corporate oligarchy, stripped of its earlier power, will lash back at those who resist. I think it’s a tougher time for young people and many are fighting back. They are a clever group with — if possible — a bigger battle to fight.

Young people who have read Gates of Eden may have a core understanding of what they are up against; I admire that greatly. It’s as if — in the time since I decided to write Gates, to tell that young woman that we weren’t all just dope-smoking hippies — the world changed rapidly and young people get it. The fight is on, Gates or no Gates.

The book also portrays the young people trying to forge new ways of relating to each other. Sharing everything. Sexual freedom, etc. But it also reveals some of the limitations of these new ways, including around the roles of women in the radical movements which is brought out through the characters of Madeline and Connie. This seems like an important secondary theme in the book, can you talk about that?

Okay. Sharing everything. Absolutely. Even without an ideology, sharing became second nature. Sexual freedom, yes, but also — and perhaps more critical — gender equality. We learned early in the movement that those in power don’t give it away. Those out of power must grab it. Women began to do that within the movement in an effective but different same way we were fighting to take power from The Man.

In Gates, I wanted to capture — and celebrate — the depth and intensity of the second front in the war at home — the rise of new left and counterculture feminism. In the late ‘60s — at the same time that we battled ‘The Man’ — the antiwar movement was led (and often misled) by men. I’ll hazard to say the civil rights movement was somewhat different. Although I’m speaking broadly, women had often been more central to the leadership and inspiration of the civil rights movement.

In the antiwar movement, men felt secure in their liberator identities but — in fact — men were perpetrating many of the patterns of their enemies. We could call The Man a fascist pigs but it was the women who came to awareness first. Of course they did. They were the ones being oppressed, by their brothers, their cadre, their lovers.

They coined the phrase male chauvinist pig” and — although the term has been ridiculed — they were right. Many men in the movement were chauvinistic and the “pig” part went along with it. In Gates of Eden, I attempted to follow Connie and Madeline and Diane as they become aware of their own oppression and declare their right to speak, to control their own bodies and their right to act on the powerful notion that — at the core of the relations that powered the liberation movements — the personal is the political. Many of us struggled with this notion, with varying degrees of success but the reality spoke truth — women like Madeline, Connie, and Diane opened a second, critical front in the war at home.

The character of Eddie is a white Vietnam vet from a poor or working class background who must live with what he did in Vietnam as he fights to oppose his former commanders. I could not help thinking about the U.S. veterans from of Iraq and Afghanistan wars today. Any comments?

A friend once told me, “It took almost all of us about two weeks in country before we understood how rotten this war really was.” In Gates, I tried to capture the feel of the returning vets in the character of Eddie Carpenter. Although he carried open and unrecognized wounds from his experience in Vietnam. Many of them learned — as they Vietnamese taught us — to turn their rage into action. Eddie Carpenter, in Gates, became ingenious and dedicated antiwar activists.

We supported our troops in Vietnam by demanding they be brought home. In fact, as in Gates, many Viet vets were instrumental in launching the G.I coffee houses that sprung up around military bases during the war. Here, G.I.s could lounge around, mingle with other G.I.s and their antiwar cohorts, read underground newspapers. In my experience, despite the myths of baby killer epithets and of soldiers treated as targets for peacenik hatred or scorn, no one with any political savvy, who understood the draft or how war exploited racism and poverty, ever insulted or assaulted a Vietnam vet.

Describing the difference between Vietnam and Iraqi/Afghanistan vets and their response to their differing experiences would take volumes. However, I can provide anecdotal experience regarding returning vets from the Middle East. The Joiner Center for the Study of War and Its Consequences holds an annual writing conference at its center in Boston. The Joiner Center was founded by returning Vietnam vets who used writing to tell the world about the war and to give expression to their own experiences.

I was invited to lead a panel discussion using Gates of Eden as a focal point for the discussion. Due to an injury, I was unable to attend, but the Joiner Center held the panel discussion with Gates and without me. The novel and comparisons between veterans’ experiences aroused a great deal of curiosity and discussion.

According to the Joiner Center’s Director, the presence the draft (military conscription) in Vietnam Era vs absence of the draft in our modern campaigns occupied much of the discussion. Along with many other analysts, the vets at the conference believed that the U.S. government has been afraid to reinstate the draft because of the antiwar sentiment it generated during the Vietnam War. Viet vets were only require to serve one tour of duty. Without the draft, the government was forced to re-deploy its troops for multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The reality of living in America, and the stakes of taking up resistance are harsher and higher for Louis, Sophie and Diane, black characters in the book, can you talk about this?

The anti-war movement of the 1960s could never have become as powerful as it did without the resistance, tactics, and leadership of the civil rights movement. In addition to adopting civil rights tactics like passive resistance and civil disobedience, many of antiwar activists had first joined the civil rights movement. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), for example, came out of the civil rights movement after 1963. SDS’s original efforts were to address racism and poverty in America. It adopted its antiwar platform and strategies only after fierce debate about its original social-justice mission.

Although including the civil rights movement expanded Gates of Eden’s horizons, I felt it crucial that we visit that scene through the characters of Diane Thomas, a young crusader from the Congress of Racial Equality, Louis Guillory, and Connie Moore. All three characters risked their lives in the Freedom Riders’ attempts to desegregate public transportation and in the Mississippi Freedom Summer’s voter registration drives. It had to be included in any exploration of the New Left and its anti-war stance.

Switching from the characters to their author, tell us a little about what your political and artistic history is, I understand you were in the Digger movement. Who were the Diggers? And you were also involved in cultural/artistic activities as a young person?

I grew up as a Red Diaper baby in an intellectual family. In short, I was the kid of a couple of communists who were blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Therefore, I never experienced that loss of innocence that impacted so many New Left and anarchist activists. I knew who the FBI was. I knew my father couldn’t find work. I was influenced by folk music in the early 1960s. As with Michael, the folk singer turned SDS leader, the music I learned to play taught me more about American history and culture than any classroom could have. I read Paul Krassner’s The Realist an anarchist rag for sure and sucked up Kerouac and Ginsberg hot off the press.

I had the rare privilege of coming of age at the beginning of rock and roll and listened to the transition the blues made from race records to Top Forty hits, to fodder for the Rolling Stones. I began acting as a child, then in college, but my theater art never intersected with my politics and culture the way folk music did. Then I came across the San Francisco Mime Troupe on a summer excursion to California. Instant shock of recognition… These people were trying to say something with their art and their audiences were responding. I auditioned, made it into the troupe. I was in red diaper heaven, surrounded by an amazing crowd of bohos and characters like Kent Minault, Peter Coyote, Peter and Judy Berg, Brooks Bucher [sic], David Simpson and Jane Lapiner, Nina Blausenheim. Even Destiny Kinal appeared somewhere in the blur. Bill Graham had left in a huff but the momentum had been building.

I was thriving on this new and better planet until Ronnie Davis, the Troupe’s visionary leader found out I was prepared to quit college after my third year at Harvard. He slapped his forehead and kicked my behind down the stairs at the old studio behind the Chronicle and told me to come back next year. “After you graduate, you dummie.”

A long year later I was back. No graduate school for me. Hell no, there was a war to stop and I had found the tool to stop it: The San Francisco Mime Troupe. I moved into a Digger household on Diamond Street or somewhere above Market and Castro. That fall was one of the Mime Troupe’s most explosive years. R.G. Davis had set up a network (we only had phones and mimeographs machines of course) with SDS chapters on campus all over the United States. So, the Troupe, with a powerful antiwar play called L’Amant Militaire, toured major U.S. campuses, landing on campus that had been organizing war resistance events for months ahead of time. It was an incredibly powerful and effective use of drama.

When we returned from that tour (1967) the Diggers in the Mime Troupe left. They were sorely missed but they wanted to follow their own agenda (or lack of it). I stayed with the Troupe (I strongly believed in its manifesto) but stayed in touch with Digger enclaves for years after, in Petrolia and Olema California and on Turkey Ridge Farm near the Delaware Water Gap. By that time, most of the Digger clan were truckers, as was I. At the Petrolia enclave, Freeman House and others were organizing a reinhabitory approach to the planet and the encroaching ecological threats that we know so well. They were also developing positive models to test reinhabitory theory, using the Northwest salmon population as a totem instrument to measure the overall health of ecosystems such as the watershed surrounding the Mattole River that ran below the spectacular ridge top perch of the Petrolia Digger enclave.

But who was a Digger? What was a Digger? What was digger? Nobody knew. Nobody cared, nobody wanted to care. Although the name had a history, there were no corrals where Diggers grazed. My own life drifted, sliding through the aftermath of the antiwar movement and my work in political theater. Environmentalism was growing now, as was feminism. Liberation movements were growing among minority populations and politicos, Diggers or not, we bonding with indigenous liberation movements on reservations.

What projects are you working on now?

Two projects come to mind. I recently competed a screenplay that is based on a remark that reinhabitory theorist and Planet Drum publisher Peter Berg made at a kitchen table somewhere in Maryland in 1971. We were talking about Buckminster Fuller, the co-option of the first Earth Day rituals and other grim but prescient topics. Peter, remarking on the devastation of mother earth’s resources by the consumer machine, said “One day soon, these bastards will have drunk the earth dry. Then they’ll crumple it away like an empty Coca-Cola can.”

“No deposit, no return,” someone else mumbled. That notion stuck with me for three decades before I manifested Peter’s observation in a film story. No Deposit, No Return depicts the overthrow of a dystopian corporate-driven society by an egalitarian, multi-species utopian society dedicated to reinhabiting the planet. Major research areas include origins of and artistic treatments of dystopian thought and emerging technologies relevant to the imagining of a future utopia. By writing No Deposit, No Return, I hoped to create a character-driven cinematic adventure that projects a future for the planet and all its creatures.

I’m currently finishing revisions to project number two, an earlier novel I wrote called A Bowl Full of Nails. This story, as with Gates of Eden, explores the Vietnam-Era but from the POV of the collective back-to-the-land movements and the complex interaction of the personal with the political. Vaguely autobiographical, Nails explores these ideas through the eyes of a young, burnt-out activist who attempts to run away from his now-paranoid life in the city. In a way, A Bowl Full of Nails picks up where Gates of Eden, my inaugural tale of anti-Viet protest, leaves off.

When radical theater freak and antiwar activist Gus Bessemer takes a load of birdshot in the butt, he learns that to get shot in the ass means three things: one, you’re running away; two, they got the guns and you don’t; and three, despite your ingenuity, passion, and resolve, the revolution isn’t gonna to happen today.

Nursing his rage and disappointment, young Gus heads for the hills to get away from it all. It’s only a matter of days before he discovers that — even amidst the rugged beauty of the Colorado Rockies — there’s no escaping the war at home.

The fictional town of Montgomery mentioned in Nails is modeled on the mountain town of Ward, Colorado. When I was in Ward, a caravan of gypsy truckers including Peters Berg and Coyote and familys, the Pickens, and other communards stopped by. I won’t tell you more for fear of spoiling the story for readers, but another author who joined with the Diggers at Black Bear Ranch describes A Bowl Full of Nails this way:

“In A Bowl Full of Nails, Charles Degelman reminds us that the ‘60s weren’t just flowers, stoned hippies, and Be-Ins; but a time of serious political struggle by a generation dedicated to ending the war in Vietnam. If you ever thought you could get away from trouble by running from the big city, she says, “Degelman has news for you.”

That’s the story and — with artistic license thrown in — that’s the way it was in 1971.

Peace out,

Charles Degelman

© Sitio Tiempo Press 2010


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