Loose Change, by Sara Davidson
O Brave New World
Loose Change: Three Women of the Sixties.
by Sara Davidson.
Doubleday. 367 pp. $9.50.
Sara Davidson was graduated from the University of California in 1964, at about the time beatniks were becoming hippies and the staid and earnest civil-rights movement was giving way to the New Left. After a year at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, she landed a job on the Boston Globe, and soon branched out into freelance writing for magazines like Harper’s, the Atlantic, Esquire, and Life, publications eager for the sort of news about the young and their goings-on that this sympathetic and articulate spokesman could deliver. At twenty-seven, she was cited by Harper’s Bazaar as one of “A hundred women in touch with our time—a deft evaluator of the current scene.”
Indeed, in Loose Change, a portrait of the adventures she and two of her sorority sisters enjoyed during the 60’s, Miss Davidson proves herself one who eagerly embraced what she experienced as that decade’s revolutionary spirit. Her book covers all the familiar landmarks of the 60’s—Woodstock Nation, flower-power in Haight Ashbury, Altamont, the Summer of Love, Eastern religious cults, sex, the drug culture, encounter groups, the anti-war movement, Women’s Liberation, rock stars, back-to-the-land communes, the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, riots at Columbia, and so on.
For Miss Davidson and the others chronicled in Loose Change, these sundry phenomena comprised a time of high hope and excitement, one that would usher in a new era characterized by a universal dedication to social reform, open, honest, and loving relationships, a shattering of sexual taboos, and an uncompromising disdain for the grubby pursuit of money, power, and career. That new era never arrived, and in writing Loose Change, Miss Davidson hoped to find out what went wrong and why. To this end she sought out two girls she had lived with at college: Susie Hersh Berman, veteran of the radical student movement at Berkeley, and Natasha Taylor, a chic New York art dealer.
Susie, Natasha, and Sara had all come to Berkeley from pretty much the same background. Raised in sun-washed Los Angeles, they had in common affluence, good looks, popularity, a loving and indulgent upbringing. As undergraduates, however, each resolved to renounce the easy suburban future to which she had been born and bred, vowing, instead, to experience life to the fullest and not be “hampered by convention.” Under the influence of Jeff Berman, a rising “star” in radical student politics, Susie developed a commitment to the “revolution”; Natasha forewent the life of a doctor’s wife to pursue a career in New York; and Sara set out to make it as a journalist of the counterculture.
Miss Davidson stresses her belief that the girls’ bid for liberation was unprecedented and commendable, but the road to freedom was a rocky one, spelling trouble for all three; they suffered anxiety over their careers, unhappy love affairs and marriages, and the general erosion of their youthful élan. Yet despite it all, each, as she approached thirty, began to see the pieces of her life coming together. Divorcing Jeff, Susie set off for Southeast Asia and Taos, New Mexico, seeking her “identity.” She is back in Berkeley now, enrolled in medical school on an affirmative-action program to meet the “need” for women doctors. Natasha, breaking off a difficult relationship with a famous and wealthy sculptor, became a successful art dealer and married the man of her dreams. Sara, also divorced from her husband, a New York radio personality, “hibernated” for four years to write this book, and is once again living in Los Angeles and feeling good about her prospects.
For all the tribulations endured, then, Miss Davidson looks back on the 60’s as a time of confidence and exhilaration, and on herself and her peers as a “generation that was special . . . that had sprung from nowhere . . . that had glimpsed a new world where nothing would be the same.” She contrasts these great times, with their optimism, energy, and certainty, with the dismal 70’s, when young people are caught up instead in a “cross-generational obsession with money and security.” Yet even a reader otherwise disposed to give Miss Davidson the benefit of the doubt could not help but notice that her book tends to show that things are in fact the other way around.
Unconventionality? These free spirits of the 60’s would put a suburban housewife to shame. They fret endlessly about their looks, their wardrobes, their boyfriends and spouses. They are obsessed with home furnishing (Miss Davidson expends more real tears over a purple sofa that she gives up in her divorce proceedings than over the assassination of Robert Kennedy), dishes that have to be washed, meals cooked, how to scintillate at parties, find and keep the right man. A shattering of sexual taboos? Their sex lives are dreadful; they can’t have orgasms, and they seem to think about nothing else; they’re anxious about the length of their legs and the size of their breasts; their husbands have lost interest, their lovers neglect and oppress them. An uncompromising disdain for the grubby pursuit of money, power, and career? The level of their status anxiety, their concern for their place in the world—what it is, how to advance it—would astonish the most gray-flanneled climber of the 50’s. Having come from money, all three continue in its thrall; Natasha and Sara especially are as attuned to the cost and quality of things as auctioneers, and Loose Change is as preoccupied with pricey merchandise as a Blooming-dale’s catalogue. They follow the course of their careers and social standing like stockbrokers at the ticker tape, eyes open for the main chance. Open, honest, and loving relationships? Under the influence of some cultic religion or other Miss Davidson has determined to “honor the divinity in people.” She makes a stunning exception in the case of her husband, offering up for public consumption the sexual and emotional intimacies of their life together in a manner calculated to honor the worm, or the fool, in him, but precious little else.
What sighs through the pages of this book, as it seems to have done through the lives of these petulant and mindless girls, is not any buoyant revolutionary spirit but simple self-absorption—that, and an unfailing ability to wind up where the money and glamor are. The only difference in these girls’ lives between the 60’s and the 70’s is that in the 60’s they could not acknowledge what they were after, and hence were miserable much of the time, whereas in the 70’s they can (if only implicitly) and so have found happiness at last.
As for reality, political and cultural reality, and all those high public events—Vietnam, the civil-rights movement, the counterculture—that supposedly gave this period its meaning, these figure in Loose Change only as signposts in a private landscape, seized upon as occasions for self-dramatization on the part of one or another character, or providing Miss Davidson with material for magazine articles. The “revolution” of the 60’s is nowhere to be found here, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it exists only as a function of the particular mood Natasha, or Sara, or Susie happens to be in on the morning of any particular day. Did it figure any more seriously in the lives of any other members of that generation? Miss Davidson’s book gives cause for doubt. But at least we know now what these young women of the 60’s are asking of us, as they stride ever resolutely onward to their brave new world: first, what should they wear; second, how should they decorate it.