I went to college in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. What a difference a decade makes. Anita H. Harris graduated from Cornell in 1970 and her Ithaca Diaries: Coming of Age in the 1960s is a chronicle of her four years of travail at an Ivy League institution where coeds were outnumbered four to one and the campus was exploding with political activism. Her college experience is almost unrecognizable to a non-Baby Boomer, and that is what makes reading the book so intriguing.
If you read about the 1960s as a history of movements and upheaval, you can say to yourself, “We have movements and upheaval, too.” But when you get a first-person account that chronicles the quotidian details of a woman’s daily life, and she juxtaposes them abruptly within the narrative against the headlines of the day—both on and off campus—you experience how innocent these young people were compared to the social changes that were being wrought by drugs, social movements like feminism and black liberation and global politics in the form of the Vietnam War and the wars in the Middle East. Because Harris is Jewish, the last gets rather more mention than it might otherwise.
Ithaca Diaries is not literally a transcription of Harris’s written account of her undergraduate years, but given the level of detail provided, the narrative is obviously heavily dependent on an actual day-to-day record, from which she does regularly quote at length. The author has also made the brave decision to reproduce her own perspective, as it would have been between the ages of 17 and 21, rather than writing it as a fond and wise look back, which would have been less embarrassing.
Harris, you see, is a neurotic. She states this repeatedly in her diary and demonstrates it abundantly in her candid description of her behavior. In the spring of her freshman year, Harris’s parents set up an appointment for her with a psychiatrist in her hometown of Albany.
I’m seeing Dr. C. because I am upset and anxious. You have political stuff escalating, you have craziness of the dorm, you have drugs and weirdness and the violence on campus, you have Harv [her boyfriend] the motorcycle guy in the green felt Robin Hood hat who is mixed up, oversexed and on drugs telling me he is going to kill himself if I don’t sleep with him and that I am the one who is nuts, plus now the college mental health service thinks I see penises everywhere.
She describes several somewhat dysfunctional relationships with men and friendships with women. Some of the difficulty stems from Harris’s hanging back as her peers plunge ahead into the social revolutions that are going on around them. She holds on to her virginity until her senior year; her participation in political activism increases slowly and she finally leads a demonstration literally on her graduation day; although she is popping prescribed Librium (more of it through the years), she doesn’t get stoned until her senior year.
Harris occasionally describes some predicaments that are very of-the-time, like being refused birth control at the university clinic because the nurse decided she is too young to have sex and, less dramatically, having to change from jeans into a skirt to go to a friend’s house to have dinner and then having to borrow jeans in order to go on a spontaneous outing to Stewart Park.
Less well-heeled readers will be struck by the fact that Harris is never gainfully employed (even during the summer) until her final semester in college. She travels widely and often, goes shopping when she gets upset, and depends regularly on family connections to get where she needs to go. All of this would be easier to hold against her were she not so unself-conscious and unapologetic about it.
Readers of Resister by her older peer activist Bruce Dancis will be interested to see the same events depicted by Harris in a much less self-interested way. Her coda à la Animal House tells you where all these yahoos are today. Hilariously, many of the most self-involved undergrads are in positions of great responsibility today. §