To the Microbus Born

“Hippie kids grew up the products of a great experiment,” writes Chelsea Cain, who was raised on a hippie commune in Iowa herself. Hoping to learn what sort of people the experiment produced, Cain assembled Wild Child: Girlhoods in the Counterculture (Seal Press, $16), a collection of short, sometimes sketchy, but always intriguing memoirs. The 15 contributors include Moon Zappa, the well-known daughter of a rock star, and Ariel Gore, founding editor of the mothering zine Hip Mama. Today, all are in their 20s and 30s, and some have children of their own. The book offers a glimpse of what it would be like to look out at mainstream culture and know you aren’t part of it, that you are different. Some of the contributors discovered they knew a lot more about drugs, sex, and music than their classmates. At least two were born in the family kitchen–one of them on the kitchen table. Clothes were a vivid mark of difference as well. “Clothes were toys,” writes Zappa, “extensions of the imagination worn to express who or what you were”–when she wore them at all.

Cain chose to focus on girls, she explains, because a countercultural childhood had particularly radical implications for them, in an era when Western women in general were seeking more social and sexual freedom. Indeed, many of the writers mention their contacts with the so-called free love movement, which some brushed against lightly and others slammed into, with long-term repercussions. Looking back on life with a hypersexual mom, Elizabeth ShÈ now caustically defines free love as having the right to say yes to sex, but only yes. Another common–and closely related–issue involves personal boundaries, which several of the women have had trouble establishing.

In the end, are these wild children better off than their parents? The book offers no simple answer, but it does suggest that their hippie pasts have profoundly affected their entire lives. “There is just no way that you can escape being influenced by a childhood designed specifically to influence you,” concludes Cain. “You can take the girl out of the counterculture, but you can’t take the counterculture out of the girl.

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