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Counterculture Memoirist Sharon Dukett on what We Learned (and Forgot) from the Hippies

It's been said that the United States hasn't seen comparable social upheaval since the civil rights and anti-war struggles of the sixties and seventies. Yet as the racial justice protests of today make apparent, the civil rights movement of then was an unfinished project: indeed, we may not be in the situation we are now, the virus of racism still infecting our nation, if the counterculture movement had been as culturally and politically effective as we'd like to imagine.

What went wrong, and what went right, are key to understanding the future of any social struggle. And my generation and the adjacent one— meaning millennials and Zoomers — are the most apt to be politically active, by dint of how viciously our lives are affected by today's political turmoil. Unfortunately, none of us were alive to witness what life was like back then, which makes it difficult to understand today's social movements in historical context.

This is partly what makes Sharon Dukett's memoir, "No Rules," so engrossing. Dukett's journey epitomized the mantra "tune in, turn on, drop out": as a teenager, Dukett literally dropped out of high school, motivated by a rare chance to live on the other side of the country beyond the grip of her parents. She quickly became immersed in the free-spirited hippie world of protest, drugs, love and music. "No Rules," like all great memoirs, grants the reader the feeling of time travel — immersing you in the body of someone who was there to witness a now-alien era. Though I'd like to think of myself an informal scholar of that era by virtue of my family's background, Dukett's honest and vivid book gave me the first real understanding of what life was like then for one of the hoi polloi: Dukett, a teenage runaway, couldn't easily fly home if things went awry.

Thus, Dukett didn't navigate the counterculture with considerable privilege. Men mistreat and abuse her and those in her vicinity, authority figures harass she and her friends, she observes evictions, experiences homelessness, and people in her circle even die. Hers is a bottom-up, rather than a top-down, view of the life of a young person then. 

I spoke to Dukett over the phone about her memoir, and what lessons the counterculture movement has for youth political culture today. As always, this interview has been condensed and edited for print. 


I guess the bigger question I'm leading to was to ask you about political differences between then and now. In some respects, it seems like the hippies won a lot of the cultural wars — say, in terms of pot being legal, and that multiculturalism is a normalized positive concept — but on the other hand, we're a very divided country now. We don't have a draft anymore, but we just use poverty as a draft. Likewise, I think Donald Trump and George W. Bush were both the antithesis of the '60s sentiment as far as leaders go. I was wondering what you kind of thought about the unfinished cultural revolution of that era?

Yeah, it's frustrating that a lot of the progress that seemed to be made during that time, in the beginning of things that became progress, seemed to have reversed. Abortion's a real big one, too. One of the things that did start, I think especially among the back-to-the-land people, is the whole idea of food being organic, and getting chemicals out of the food, and all that sort of thing. That has taken a strong hold, and survived the culture and grown and gotten more significant.

It's strange because I think our culture now, in a lot of ways, is much more liberal — and yet much more conservative. It was pretty polarized back then too. It was hugely polarized in a lot of ways.

Read entire article at Salon