The Day They Purged Maurice Stein
When the great Los Angeles earthquake of early 1971 cracked open a third of the California Institute of the Arts buildings, I figured it was merely divine retribution for the ugly way Maurie Stein had been fired. By then, the dismemberment of the School of Critical Studies was well under way, and the only thing I could do that was useful was give people backrubs to ease the pain. But before everything got too chaotic and demoralizing to deal with, back in the first term, when the space of our school still seemed open, I tried to conduct a regular "class," for the first time in years.
Tuesday and Thursday of every other week, we met on the lawn in the afternoon, moved indoors when it grew cold. My friend Paul organized the group when he was with Liz, a gregarious dance major, so five of the seven students turned out to be from her school, the most discipline-heavy of C.I.A.'s six divisions.
We needed a title to satisfy the Accreditors, so I called it "On Learning and Social Change" and listed my papers as bibliography. But the real name of our course was "Learning from Our Experience." I had in mind no fixed curriculum -- only to make a small space where we would be free to help each other figure out what was happening to us, and what to do.
By our sixth meeting, things began to get interesting. The previous ones were mostly about getting to know each other and creating the trust that enabled people to bring up the things that concerned them. In that process we talked a lot about learning, the arts, the politics of the school, drugs, and so on. After this, and five twilight odysseys across campus in search of a room to continue talking in, the customary magic happened, and we began to function as a group.
Sixth meeting, we were sitting on the lawn, beginning, when Paul came up, tumbled a bit with Liz, and said, "Mary Ann ran off a thousand catalogues for Critical Studies, and she has to stay until they're assembled. Why don't we go help her?" Class, schmass: the idea was to be open, and we trooped off to the office. We jockeyed around a while until we fell into a mutual rhythm, each person walking around the long table with its twenty neat stacks, pausing at the end to staple and stack a catalogue and walking back to begin again.
Pursuing our slow rotation, after half an hour we began to talk again. I'd been trying to lay off rapping, for obvious reasons. But something I said casually to Richard caught his attention; his energy flared, centering the group. I found myself talking to all, as he pressed me for detail on how Amerika and the landscapes of possibility had appeared fifteen years ago, when I entered college. I went on for a bit about what it was like to grow up as a freaky member of the Silent Generation in a time that held no hint of real options, and how it had felt to have the FBI at our door during the McCarthy years. And then I fell silent, amazed by the well of memory opened in me by their attention and embarrassed by Richard's avid interest. As we went on gathering papers and talk swirled off, I realized how hungry they were to understand the past of this troubling present and to have a sense of human connection with it. (This incident helped push me into pulling-together The Wedding Within the War.)
Opening up like that left me with too much energy to handle in slow routine, and after a while I dropped out of rotation and stood at the end of the line, assembling the last four sheets and handing them to people as they came up. Soon someone stood next to me, assembling the penultimate four sheets, and then others ceased their circulation to extend the static line. We were acting out spontaneously the formation of an enzyme: within two minutes our molecule was functioning as an integral unit, assembling the precursor pages into organic form at twice the rate of anarchist production. After we were through, we talked about what this efficiency had cost our process, and how the more complicated cooperations required by this linear teamwork had taken enough attention to destroy our conversation, and the function of various modes of production in a capitalist state; and then we dispersed to dinner.
When we met again, the atmosphere was charged and complex: the clampdown at C.I.A. had begun. From the start, the president and provost were upset by the eclectic sprawl of courses offered by the faculty Maurie had assembled for the School of Critical Studies -- fifty distinguished, freaky scholars, mostly young, life-radical, and high-powered -- and that he left us free to teach what we would was intolerable. Neither they nor most of the deans were charmed by 5 A.M. Mantra Chanting or The Aesthetics of Rock; they wanted a few Art History courses to satisfy the State Accrediting Commission. And they just couldn't deal with walking into the Critical Studies office and being unable to tell the teachers from the students.
It's true that our school was chaotic. The governing council we had chosen by lot, one from each sign of the Zodiac, was just coming to face the real problems involved in taking over the functions of the deanship from Maurie (who still somewhat clung to them), integrating the work of our school, and coordinating with the needs of the other schools. But no one in the administration had the patience to wait for results, beset as they were by all the frustrations of founding a new (and badly planned) institution, plus a certain need for control. And the cultural gap was unbridgeable: they could recognize our Zodiacal gambit only as a lewd gesture of chaos, rather than a sensible device for the rotation of representative government. Barely two months into our experiment in self-structuring, the word came down at a deans' conference luncheon: Maurie should shape up his school, or be relieved of his duties.
Rumor is quick on a campus that small. By the time we met on the lawn at 4:30, everyone knew. Paul and Beth had seen it coming since school started, and we'd talked about it in class; but the others were still shocked when the discord became formal and public. Richard was a-sputter with the indignation of the innocent. "But they can't do that," he said, "this is the only class I have where people aren't always telling me what to do. If they try to take it away . . . I'll fight 'em, that's what I'll do, I'll fight!” In the end, neither students nor faculty could manage any effective resistance to the school's reorganization. Still, we spent half an hour going over the institution's power politics, and our paranoia.
When we went inside, prepared by the moment's emotion and our last meeting's experience of teamwork, some level of reserve gave way, and talk for the first time moved to a certain deeper level. For weeks, Beth had been advancing her uneasy feelings about the contradiction between a professional career in a classical art and the kind of life and person she wanted to be. Now, following her lead, one by one they began to confess their versions of her tensions and doubts -- even Larry, the graduate student, already well into his work as a teacher. I lay back and just listened. For a long time they struggled to bring out their feelings about what they wanted and needed; about what sort of artist it was worth becoming in this time, and with what relation to society; about the examples of their teachers' lives; and so on. It was dark when we broke up, many unsettling questions opened, none resolved.
When we came together again, the atmosphere of crisis had subsided some, though our school was feverish with committee caucuses. The group formed without the usual horseplay and kidding-around. I waited for someone to pick up the threads of our last meeting. No one ventured to. Laurie asked when their experience reports would be due; we talked listlessly about the technical details. Someone made a joke about bureaucratic function. It didn't sound funny. Winter was coming to Los Angeles, the lawn was chill, we went inside early. Same scene. Troubled, I started talking about something or other; found myself rapping on; shut up. We sat there in paralyzed silence for a solid hour. We were miserable, we couldn't even manage to talk about what was happening to us; it was like one of those awfuller hours with your shrink. Charlie stood up and left abruptly. Finally Paul grunted in dull brain-flash, got up and turned off the light, revealing the darkness outside, sat down again. As late twilight swirled around us, a slight sigh escaped. He took out his guitar and played softly. Charlie came back, with a half-gallon of wine. We moved closer together on the linoleum floor, heads came to rest on laps or legs. Liz rubbed Laurie's shoulders; the bottle passed around. When nightfall was complete, we left, still in silence.
Looking back, I see that this interlude of paralysis came after we made a breakthrough of sorts. We had talked together, worked together, and confessed; and had reached a level, perhaps of honesty, that we needed to go on from. Yet we were not together enough as a group to do this at will. And so we sat silent, because no one wanted to go back. I was too preoccupied with the governance crisis and futile strategies of resistance to prepare for our next meeting. But drifting there I ran into Beth, and we wound up going to the supermarket to pick up some food.
When we got back a party had already started. Charlie had come into some champagne, had been at it since three, and brought the rest along. His blond pigtails floated like wings as he waved us in to the bottle circle, where we tore open the bags. Bread, cheese, apples, wine. No one felt like saying anything to remind us we were a "class." Paul fell to his guitar, I had my flute, people started singing something current. The door was open, friends dropped in from late rehearsals, there was food enough. Singing went on, changed to clapping and chanting, tribal harmonies rising and falling, passing through one frantic crescendo. Somewhere in there we got into a back-rubbing thing and wound up in a working circle. I forget how it all fell out in detail, but those hours were pretty mellow.
Meanwhile, C.I.A.'s power-play went on, our committees bumbled along trying to delay the inevitable, and the Managers' patience ran out. One day Maurie got a memo from President Corrigan, relieving him of his duties and appointing the provost as interim dean. A meeting was set at Corrigan's house that night, to explain the matter to the "senior faculty" of Critical Studies. By the time it began, some fifty of Maurie's sympathizers, faculty and student, had found their way across the freeways to crowd into Corrigan's living room. In that space, formal as a museum and as chockful of modern graphics on display, we sat -- an angry tribe, but too academic and disorganized to be dangerous. Still, the president was careful to bring us ashtrays.
For hours we went round -- it was impossible to get a straight answer -- about what the president and provost felt was wrong with our school, and what plans they had for revising it. They kept telling us that no one's job was in danger (and, to be fair, after many left voluntarily, they wound up firing only eight) -- that the problem was a case of personal incompatibility, Maurie being unfit to be a dean. Politics reduced to personality. They were outraged because he couldn't keep secrets and had allowed confidential memos from the administration to be circulated. I remembered how my class had reacted to them, to the attitudes and plans they revealed -- the brass had reason to be upset.
But what they kept harping on most was Maurie's paranoia, which made him, they said, intractable and uncooperative. The deans adduced examples of his crazy behavior. There was no ventilation; we were sweating. By the time the Noted Elder Journalist started pontificating about how paranoid the school's governance meetings had been, I couldn’t stand it any more. "They're all paranoid," he declaimed, waving an arm vaguely in my direction. "Who, me?" I said, standing up, "Me? I'm not paranoid. No, me, I'm not paranoid," my voice rising out of control into a very real shriek that propelled me backwards, twitching and gibbering, to fall two casual inches away from the huge picture window, twined around some objet d'art and still crying, "No, no, nobody's paranoid."
I didn't break the reality. After a moment the provost went on explaining, in a slow, controlled voice, precisely how paranoid Maurie was. But why shouldn't he have been paranoid? Since before school opened, when they suppressed the brilliant student handbook that Michael Bell labored for a month to cast into a concrete poem, they had threatened Maurie's firing, reminding him weekly by more and more open displeasure and diminishing cooperation. We protested: we all had felt apprehensive for months, with good reason. The provost hinted at dark matters he chose not to reveal, "for Maurie's good"; spoke again of paranoia.
Meanwhile, the tableau is like this: facing the president and his consort of deans, across the little open circle remaining in the room, is Maurie, seated. And standing behind him is the provost. You can see his hands in the lamplight; they rest on the chair above Maurie's shoulders, now and again touching him for emphasis in the course of speech. But the rest of the provost is in shadow. For an hour now his features have been invisible, his voice coming from the darkness above Maurie's head. I wonder again what irony led the Disney money to pick as C.I.A.’s campus boss a man so dedicated to the theater, and to the traditional vision of the director's tyranny as being essential for group art. Suddenly Maurie understands what is happening, or perhaps he has borne it and now breaks. He spins out of his seat, yelling, "Goddamn you, Herb, come out of the shadows! Let me see you when you talk to me! You've been doing this all the time, you've got to stop it!" And for a moment it seems that Maurice is going to grab him, wrestle him into the light. Then the provost steps out and continues talking, quite calmly and reasonably. The hostile deans, behind him now, nod their heads significantly: have we not just seen an example of paranoid irrationality?
After that, the theater was downhill all the way, a six-month series of rear-guard actions to protect what jobs we could. The student protest meeting the next day was energetic but indecisive, and was not repeated. It is too distressing and commonplace for me to go into the details of why even Maurie's friends were unable to muster organization and spine -- suffice it to say that the situation was fucked from the start. Only the earthquake cheered us.
It was about that time, perhaps on the very afternoon of Maurie's firing, that our class met again, in the room we had come to think of as our home. Again the atmosphere was turbulent with weird energy. We spent some time sharing bread, fruit, wine, and a joint. I started talking more about my first experiences in the years of purge and paranoia: what it was like to be a child of Commie parents, to babysit at twelve, alone at night waiting for the knock on the door; the incredible pressures to conform in school; and so on. And something opened up between us -- at first with Larry.
I knew Dance students were, on the whole, the straightest and most sheltered at C.I.A. But Larry's early description of the dance-based learning games he'd developed with children had so entranced me that I didn't realize how distant our worlds were until he gave me his Experience Report to sign. In the awkward script and run-on speechy sentences of one long unaccustomed to writing, he described our class, adding: " ... and though I had never worked with a hairy & freaky person like Mr. Rossman before, I learned that he is like me in many ways . . ." Or something like that. "Gee," I said, handing it back to him, somewhat at a loss for words.
This time, after the wine went around again, he started talking about his draft physical. He was trying to get a C.O. but thought they might let him out because of his eye thing. I couldn't quite grasp the shift from the McCarthy years. His eye thing? Yes, sometimes he saw the world reversed, light for dark and vice-versa, for some minutes. Far out! We started talking about color-blindness, wearing prisms to see things upside down, and so on. Then he said, "And I used to see things that weren't there."
"When I was a child, every night after they put me in bed, when they closed the door. People would come out from the closet, walk across the room, go out the window. A whole line of them. I called for my parents to come see them. They came, they couldn't see anything. After a while they wouldn't come, they just told me to go to sleep, there was nobody there. After a while I started seeing them less and less often, eventually it just stopped. That's funny. I'd forgotten about that for a long time."
And then others started to trot them out; I think five of us confessed to strangeness. Richard, the brilliant mime and extrovert -- it turned out he did automatic handwriting. Every now and then he'd be sitting, and his hand and fingers would start to move, just like that. Paper and pen translated the motion into strange words, scrawled for page after page. "Oh, is that what it is? I didn't know it had a name." “There are books about it." I said, "Check the library. How come no one ever told you the name?" "I never told anyone before, only a couple of close friends my age, and they didn't know anything." "How come?” "Huh,” he snorted, in adolescent scorn, "think I'm crazy? The way I figured, it was something so weird, it might have military value. I didn't want them locking me up in some room, with armed guards around it and scientists poking me. So I just kept quiet."
"Well," I said weakly, "lots of people do it. Besides, the pigs don't care about that sort of thing." Recovering, I said a bit about the experiences of telepathy and teleportation I'd shared with Karen. I am only now realizing that the pigs may indeed care.
I think the last to testify in this vein was Liz, our triple-Ares churn of positive energy. I used to tease her about the songs she wrote and sang so well -- wholesome and uplifting, packed with mid-sixties Baez optimism. Now, as twilight swept over our close circle, she told us of her summer on the northern coast, in a large technological commune; and described how they used to sit in the living room at night, around the fire, and conjure forth large violet balls of energy, drift them around the room with their minds, bumping from person to person. "They said a spaceship was buried in the hill," she said, "but I didn't see it." When she was done, we were quiet for a while, and then went off to dinner.
I don't think I came down to L.A. again before Christmas vacation; and after that the general air of demoralization at C.I.A. was so heavy that most cooperations, including ours, fragmented lingeringly. When I saw Maurie again, in a brief space of peace, I told him how our class had gone and what it had come to. He was delighted by the clear progression it revealed in the midst of turmoil, and observed, "When the social fabric is tearing apart, the fabric of individual consciousness begins to tear too." I thought this applied more to the whole experience of the sixties than to our brief stay at C.I.A., but I still savored his insight.