My Odyssey through the Underground Press | By Michael Kindman | Michigan State University Press | 256 pages, $39.95
We’ve come to expect certain elements from memoirs of 1960s counterculture: weed, LSD, sexual experimentation, communes, Beatles references, and so on and so forth. Michael “Mica” Kindman’s autobiography My Odyssey Through the Underground Press delivers on all of it, but with surprisingly little about the underground press, and even fewer lessons learned.
The title seems to be a leftover from the book’s origins as a chapter of a larger anthology. Kindman’s 200-page autobiography started out as a lengthy chapter of Voices from the Underground: Insider Histories of the Vietnam Era Underground Press, published in 1993, but, according to an introduction by that book’s editor, Ken Wachsberger, was so wide-ranging and detailed it grew into its own history.
Starting in 1963, Kindman worked at four “underground” newspapers—more like the punk era’s “zines” than the papers published by resistance movements in occupied Europe during World War II—starting with an alternative college newspaper called The Paper at Michigan State University in East Lansing. The Paper grappled with the school’s administration before winning permission to be distributed on campus. During this time, according to Kindman’s descriptions of each issue, the publication seemed to be more concerned with reporting its own continued existence than current events. Aside from mocking administrative proceedings determining the publication’s outlaw status, The Paper seems to have consisted primarily of commentary and opinion, along with reprints from other alternative media, rather than much original reporting.
This is not to say The Paper didn’t make a splash on campus. It did, particularly when it reprinted explosive and well-supported allegations reported by Ramparts, a San Francisco alternative magazine, that MSU faculty had worked on an ostensible academic consulting project that, in fact, involved setting up “strategic hamlets” for the relocation of Vietnamese villagers in the 1950s. Those accusations led to hearings in the Michigan House of Representatives and likely spurred the school to dissolve its political science department.
As the Ramparts scandal died down and MSU’s administration made peace with The Paper’s existence, its intrepid student journalists were stuck with less sensational fare to fill their pages, leaving Kindman to lament how the paper was reduced to covering “the controversial question of abolishing dormitory curfews for women. Was this the revolution we were waiting for? If so, it seemed to be spinning its wheels a bit.”
Kindman ultimately dropped out of MSU and trekked across the country, landing in Boston at the headquarters of The Avatar, a lovingly produced chimera that was part underground paper, part cult tract amplifying the self-deluded musings of a man named Mel Lyman who started out claiming to be “the truth” and ended declaring himself to be Christ. Kindman fell under Lyman’s spell and was pulled into his community on Fort Hill. Here, after Lyman’s lackeys informed Kindman his stars were aligned against a career in writing profession and enlisted him in construction work instead, the book takes a hard turn away from all things related to journalism and becomes a first-person history of life in a cult.
The ensuing ninety-six pages are interesting as a case study in cults, with Lyman expertly destroying Kindman’s ego, tearing apart families and relationships on a whim, and convincing his followers to turn all their worldly possessions and income over to him. Even as The Avatar advocates a new world order and the search for the “real,” the cult’s inhabitants are forced to live by strict hierarchical and gender roles, shun the surrounding black population, and isolate themselves from anyone not loyal to Lyman.
The twisted little society on Fort Hill colors the rest of the book, as Kindman fights to gain acceptance and approval in the cult, is repeatedly kicked out and invited back, and finally runs away from the group’s farm in Kansas in the middle of a winter night in 1973. He spent years afterward alternately trying to put the experience behind him and reaching out to his former friends.
After getting back on his feet as a construction worker, Kindman returned to the world of alternative newspapers, this time doing low paid small-circulation hard news for a leftist neighborhood journal called the Grapevine. He threw himself into covering a local election, endorsing progressive candidates and weighing in on a land dispute involving a commune of anti-war protesters, all while levying charges of bias in favor of local businesses at the area’s establishment paper before burning out. Then, after deciding to part ways with his longtime girlfriend and throw himself into a gay lifestyle, he began writing for the Radical Faeries’ newsletter.
The book ends, heartbreakingly, with Kindman’s declaration that while his HIV has blossomed into full-blown AIDS at the height of the crisis and before the advent of retrovirals, he refuses to believe the end is near.
“I continue to feel like a survivor and an optimist, and identify strongly with the viewpoint that AIDS need not be universally fatal,” he announces on the last page of his memoir. “Having made it through so many setbacks and disappointments, I feel committed to making it through the epidemic as well.”
Kindman died in 1991.
While Kindman learned the hard way during the course of his life, primarily through Lyman, to look at others with a jaundiced eye, the most enervating aspect of his memoir is that he never turns that eye on himself and his own actions. While he finally sees the Fort Hill “family” for the hypocritical clique it is, he brushes off his own admissions that, while he says he admires feminism, he was physically abusive toward at least two of his girlfriends, one on Fort Hill and one long after he had left and could no longer blame the group’s hypermasculine aura. In a letter to Lyman some years after his banishment from the cult, he accuses his former hero of being “as addicted to being followed as we were to following,” but never wonders why he followed so eagerly, or kept being drawn back to Lyman years later. And even after decades spent writing and editing for leftist publications, he never looks back and asks what the alternative press is trying to accomplish, or whether its supposed independence from the establishment makes it any more valuable in the quest for truth and change.
Kindman’s decades of experience in countercultures and subcultures could contain a treasure trove of lessons for future generations inside and out of the alternative press. Just don’t count on Kindman himself to teach them.
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