At Hampshire, a student and his college come of age
By Daily Hampshire Gazette
Created 12/02/2009 - 05:00
"I write about a time when reckless irresponsibility ceased to be an acceptable lifestyle, and American culture became more serious, self-conscious and self-absorbed," writes Hampshire College graduate Richard Rushfield in his new book, "Don't Follow Me, I'm Lost: A Memoir of Hampshire College in the Twilight of the '80s" (Gotham Books).
Think about that statement for a few minutes, and you gradually, grudgingly, realize that this man has a wicked sense of humor. He skewers every person and every philosophy he encountered during his undergraduate years at Hampshire College (1986-'91), but he is also unsparing in his self-criticism. The resulting story is a coming-of-age tale for both the experimental college and for one particularly insecure, observant youth.
Rushfield, who lives in Venice, Calif., will read from his memoir Monday at his alma mater. It's a book that combines the journalistic accuracy and sense of place in Tracy Kidder's non-fictional "Hometown" with the drug-crazed, neurotic characters and adventures in Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." #
Young Rushfield came to the Pioneer Valley from that other "valley" - southern California. In his book, he describes Hampshire College as "a self-conscious experiment in education by the four major schools located in the idyllic western Massachusetts wilderness of the Pioneer Valley ¿ a laboratory free of the constraints of the established schools ¿ with the boldness to traipse down the paths its stodgy neighbors feared to tread." He claims that by the time he started school there, the experiment had turned into a nightmare of loosely drifting "misfits and malcontents from around the globe."
He also admits that his prime reason for attending the school was the promise of a single room in the dormitory.
Rushfield thought Hampshire would be similar to his former Los Angeles high school ¿ "a liberally oriented school cloistered from reality" where he hung with a crowd he describes as "revival-movie-going, Cole Porter-reciting, self-styled intelligentsia ¿"
But, once on campus, he felt sorely out of place. A sadistic dorm supervisor scorned him for being a "first-year"; a non-politically-correct essay earned him revulsion on his first day in the class "From Mark Twain to Miami Vice: Images of the American Male in Popular Culture"; he felt mocked by campus hippies for his inexperience with women and his rejection of marijuana.
"Pot was to Hampshire College what basketball was to Notre Dame, calculus to MIT. ¿ In the following years, never would I pass a day without being asked for or offered marijuana," he writes. "Perhaps the biggest handicap I had brought to Hampshire, the thing that made me totally unsuited to survive in this ecosystem, was my aversion to marijuana."
Eventually, Rushfield found friends who shared his taste in alcohol, pills and cocaine. His nihilistic tendencies, just budding when he defaced all the doors in his dorm and denied it in front of 10 witnesses, were brought to fruition at his next residence. He moved in with a group of good hearted, self-destructive misfits called "The Supreme Dicks."
The Dicks liked to bother other people by showing up uninvited at gatherings and playing loud sounds on electric instruments. They showed contempt for fellow students by organizing events meant to shock and outrage, such as a "spermathon" for South Africa. (Don't ask: read page 110.) The Dicks had a dark secret that was eventually uncovered by Rushfield: a suicide for which many people considered the Dicks responsible.
After two years of wild exploits and missed classes, the Dicks were being disbanded and Rushfield was close to expulsion. He did remain and went on to graduate with a degree in art history, mostly by attending classes at Smith and Amherst colleges. By graduation time, he had become more comfortable around the opposite sex and was off the radar screen of campus security.
Rushfield's memoir paints an unflattering view of life at Hampshire College in the late '80s. Post-epilogue, after Rushfield has sworn that the incidents in the book are essentially true, he offers this thanks to the college: "For all the rocky miles we've been down, you provided me the most memorable years of my life, years that made me who I am today, and without them, there would have been no memoir."
It is easy to picture him saying this with a bit of a sneer on his face.
Richard Rushfield will talk about his memoir Monday at 7 p.m. in the main lecture hall of Franklin Patterson Hall on the Hampshire College campus.
Thursday, December 10, 2009
Coming Attractions: Hampshire Alumnus Read(s) from Tell-All Memoir; Buildings Still Standing
Administrators and others legitimately concerned about the reputation of the College have been scared shitless at the publication of Richard Rushfield's new memoir of the wild and do-nothing Hampshire College culture of the old days.
Full disclosure: I knew and taught the author from his first through his last days here, so I am in a position to offer some sort of reality check.
A little report on the event (not a full-fledged book review—though I could identify some of the actual historical figures behind the literary characters for the reading public) will follow in due time.
In the meantime, I reproduce here the article from the Hampshire Gazette, which nicely summarizes the relation of author, text, and events:
As noted, a further report to follow. Or, to cite the retro style favored by the speaker: Be there, Aloha.