The Adams’ are an old Yankee family. After attaining a Law degree from Yale (as his father and grandfather had done), Frank Adams signed up to fight fascism in World War Two. He joined the Office of Strategic Services, America’s first national intelligence service. Most of its members came from conservative backgrounds, but quite a few, like Frank, were liberal true believers in the New Deal.
Frank served honorably and at war’s end felt that America was fulfilling its destiny to defend freedom and bring opportunity to the world. There was only one problem – the cancer of international communism was threatening to destroy freedom everywhere. So, when the O.S.S. became the Central Intelligence Agency, Frank continued his career in covert operations. He was a willing soldier in America’s anti-communist crusade.
Frank’s son Ron, born shortly after the war, spoke Spanish as his first language, because he lived his first four years in Peru, where the C.I.A. had stationed his father.
The Zeligs, like millions of others, escaped anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia and came to America, the beacon of democracy and freedom, a place where one could always make a new start. But they never forgot their socialist ideals (honed before the Russian revolution), and they were active participants in progressive politics in their new home, New York City.
As a 13-year-old in 1937, Al Zelig stood on street corners raising money for the Spanish Republic. Years later, he and his wife joined the American Communist Party, as fully committed to their vision of the future as Frank Adams was to his. Al’s son Danny was born the same year as Ron Adams, and, like him, was a post-war child steeped in his parents’ idealism.
1953 was a critical year for both families. The American empire was extending itself across the world. Five years old, Ron Adams sat in the front seat of his father’s car as they drove through downtown Tehran, Iran. Ron remembers clearly that a metal box sat on his lap. He learned later that it contained millions of dollars in cash that his father was distributing to corrupt politicians. The C.I.A., with the help of these people, overthrew Iran’s elected government and installed a brutal monarchy that would not itself be overthrown until the Islamic revolution of 1976.
During this same year, the Zeligs moved every three or four months. As full-time underground communist cadres, Al and his wife had been assigned the task of providing safe houses for fugitive radicals who were evading the F.B.I. Each time they moved to a new town, they changed their surnames, and they instructed their impressionable son that he had to – more than once – falsify his first name. One month Danny was Tommy; another month he was Robert.
Ideologically opposed as they were, both Frank Adams and Al Zelig had built their identities upon a thin veneer of belief. Their politics had been their all-encompassing faith; psychologically they were no different from other fundamentalists. And each eventually became disillusioned. Each in his way experienced the dark reality behind his passionate commitment. When their idealism collapsed, so did their lives. Realizing that the C.I.A. was intent only on destroying popular democracy, Frank quit – and quickly drank himself to death. After Stalin’s murderous history came to light, Al experienced a similar loss of innocence, quit the party and struggled for the rest of his life with a cocaine habit.
These are real people, and their stories are real mysteries. It appears that one son took on his father’s curse and the other didn’t. After college, Ron became a clinical psychologist. Danny became a troubled but talented poet. The two young men were undoubtedly present together at many of the iconic events of the 1960’s and 1970’s in the Bay Area. Danny, however, became a heroin addict. In later years he was a well-known part of San Francisco’s poetry scene before he died of an overdose. Ron has spent his entire career working in Veterans’ hospitals, mostly serving veterans of America’s tragic crusade in Viet Nam.
I relate these stories because they illustrate some of the themes of my book. Our cultural evolution has primed us to come to awareness of our identity through two forms of experience. The first is the gradual process of learning the stories that tell us who we are. The second is abrupt breaks in that self-knowledge. Those breaks can be accidental — or older representatives of culture may deliberately create them in order to propel us into a new identity, to challenge us to step up and accept a more mature roll in society. The first we used to call myth, and the second we called initiation ritual.
Modern life, however, is characterized by the absence of both of these traditional patterns. Consequently, whether we know it or not, we all exist close to a line beyond which is the terrifying sense that life lacks all meaning. Much of what we do and believe and tell each other about ourselves amounts to nothing more than unconscious efforts to cling to a sense of meaning, thin though it may be.
One of the ways that modern culture compensates for its loss of myth and initiation rituals is through deep, emotional commitment to ideology, whether it is religious or political. My book argues that this is a form of addiction, as well as a form of innocence, and that the crusading impulse toward re-making the world is a specifically American version. When that innocence (or if you prefer, grandiosity) is punctured, a cavernous well of meaninglessness may open up.
In a mythologically literate culture, where real elders are capable of guiding one through the suffering of authentic initiation, people perceive such a loss of innocence as an opportunity for deepening into the sorrowful knowledge of maturity.
Few modern people, however, can endure that disillusionment without succumbing to the overwhelming need to replace one addiction (in these cases, ideology) with another (in these cases, a substance). After all, it is no accident that the Latin and English languages equate the words for alcohol and spirits.
Tribal people knew that the world must be re-made in each generation, and that the only way this can happen is when individuals are willing to experience loss (even the loss of identity), to look into the abyss and to return to their communities with the dark knowledge of their own wounds and blessings. But this requires real community and real ritual.
Neither Frank Adams nor Al Zelig grew up in such a world. Neither one could have known, as Rumi wrote in the 13thcentury:
When school or mosque, tower or minaret get torn down,
Then dervishes can begin their community.
For it is not until faithfulness turns to betrayal
And betrayal into trust
That any human being can become a part of the truth.