In 1970, I helped organize a teach-in on the Vietnam War at the Choate School. Richard Nixon had sent troops into Cambodia, thereby widening the war he had campaigned on having a “secret plan” to end and hundreds of colleges and some high schools went on strike in protest.
One of the anti-war speakers suggested Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd as a book that could help us make sense of what was happening in our country. I got it, read it and liked it enough that I started reading Paul Goodman’s other books and frequent pieces in the New York Review of Books.
I’d never read books like his. Goodman was a learned, rational yet passionate writer-thinker-poet who offered support for my feelings that my country was a mess, but that it could be different – and that ideas mattered. His voice radiated not only intellectual authority – which I craved – but his intense yearning for human contact and love, a yearning that echoed my own. He became my hero, an “alternative father/teacher/wise elder.”
I chased after his books, absorbed his ideas and used him as my moral compass. And that was all BEFORE I learned that he was an out bisexual as well as a married father of three. As a young gay man coming of age during the time of Stonewall, I’d never read anyone write so frankly and unapologetically about being queer as Paul Goodman did in his book New Reformation: Notes of a Neolithic Conservative (1970); and that he did not focus one-dimensionally on sexual identity was very important to me because I didn’t feel that being gay should limit me to only caring about gay identity and my own distinct tribe. I wanted to be part of what he called “the Grand Community” and he was my proof that it was possible.
That was when I was in my early twenties. In my mid-thirties, I was overtaken one day while at my desk at work with an unexpected urge to write about Paul Goodman. I needed to “get him out of my system” and reflect on what my Goodman infatuation had been about. I wrote, or should say, gushed out a 10-page letter and sent it off to historian-social critic Christopher Lasch, a Goodman admirer, for his feedback.
Lasch encouraged me to pursue my interest in writing about Goodman, so I did. Soon I met his literary executor, Taylor Stoehr, who knew more about Goodman than anyone in the world since he’d been working on a biography for years. He told me that again and again people he interviewed for the book – hundreds – would say to him, “You know, Paul Goodman changed my life.” Taylor paused for a moment and then said, “That could make a fascinating documentary film: to ask some of these individuals how Paul Goodman changed their lives and how that influence played out 10, 20, even 30 years later.”
I left my first meeting with Taylor in 1988 and thought to myself “I am going to make that film.” I had no training in filmmaking and, being 34, wasn’t about to go to film school. So I kept the idea in the “to do some day” part of my brain for the future.
In 2003 when I was 50, I turned my attention to making this film. I went back to Taylor Stoehr and he gave me the names of about 10 people from various walks of life who’d been deeply influenced by Paul Goodman and put me in touch with Goodman’s widow Sally and his two daughters, Susie and Daisy.
Doing these interviews opened up a fascinating window on the world of 1950s-70s America. Goodman was a seminal thinker in the late 1950s when he was writing his future best seller about disaffected youth, and he became a one-person brain trust for the early New Left. His wide-ranging interests – educational reform, anti-war pacifism, sexual freedom, poetry, psychology, and community planning – made for a very diverse group of subjects to interview.
Speaking with his family and a few long-time friends, what began to emerge was a complex picture of a man of genius whose open bisexual life (in the 1940s!) made for a complicated domestic situation not without its price for his wife and children. Here was a brilliant man who always felt “on the outs,” against the grain, and who yearned desperately for “contact” – a key term in Gestalt Therapy, the founding text of this school of therapy that he co-authored in 1951 with Fritz Perls.
Because Goodman was so perceptive and because he had so many unacceptable impulses, he felt he never could fit in. Instead he discovered his vocation as a social critic and public intellectual, beholden to no one. In fact, no sooner did a group embrace him than he began to criticize their shortcomings and blind spots. Not an easy mentor, to say the least!
I am convinced that Paul Goodman’s ideas are as relevant today as when he first advanced them. I hope Paul Goodman Changed My Life excites the idealism and curiosity of young people who face a world at least as complicated and threatened as the one Paul Goodman worked so hard to change.
My film can help restore a missing piece of an exceptional moment in our history. The broken threads of tradition and experience need to be rewoven so we are not continually losing our past and starting over. And so young people can connect to a rich cultural, social, political, and moral legacy that is theirs to inherit and to use.
Paul Goodman always wanted to be useful, to be used. My film can, as Adrienne Rich wrote me about her hopes for the film, “bring Paul Goodman back into the conversation.” It will be a richer conversation – that’s for sure.