Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Boomers Partied — Xers Got The Hangover

Why Mike Wise really doesn't want to hear nostalgic paeans to Woodstock
Blurred Image of Hippie Girl Dancing

Some friends of mine are going through a very hard time right now. A close relative, a college student, recently took LSD, perhaps with a few of his buddies (this is unclear), and, in a psychedelic fugue, jumped out of the window of a high-rise apartment. Somehow he survived the fall, but he has been in a coma for three weeks or so, and there is no telling if he will survive, and if he does, if he will ever be normal again.

This gave me strong second thoughts about a post I did earlier this year, after reading Michael Pollan’s latest book, in which I speculated about whether there is a Christian approach to psychedelic drugs. I still believe that this is a valid question, but I doubt now whether it is a prudent question, outside of strongly limited medical (and medically supervised) uses. That is to say, given what happened to that kid, I am thinking that the taboos against recreational use of psychedelics ought to be maintained, or strengthened.

Similarly, this past weekend I watched a great 2015 Russian movie called Leviathan. Set in a remote seaside village contemporary Russia, it’s the story of a Job figure. It is astonishing to see how the Russians in this film drink copious amounts of vodka as part of ordinary social life. But it’s not an exaggeration. A reader recommended not long ago this incredible nonfiction book, The Last Man In Russia — only $3.99 on Kindle now — which is a sort of biography of the late Orthodox priest Dmitry Dudko. Father Dmitry (who came to a very bad end, alas) dedicated much of his ministry to fighting chronic alcoholism, which he believed was destroying the Russian nation. The stories and statistics journalist Oliver Bullough discusses in his book really are staggering. “Between 1940 and 1980,” he writes, “Russian consumption of all alcoholic drinks increased eightfold.” Think about that. Russians were already known as heavy drinkers. Communism drove a nation without hope to drink itself to death.

I bring that up here not because I believe there is a strict equivalence between booze and LSD. There’s not — nobody drinks a beer or a glass of wine and loses his mind and jumps out a window. I bring it up because there is a tendency among some to glamorize heavy drinking — think of the nostalgia for the Rat Pack, and of Mad Men. In my generation, binge drinking wasn’t unusual; it was just a college Saturday night. Just yesterday my son and I were talking about Donald Trump, and how he doesn’t drink alcohol because he watched his brother die of alcoholism. I have a friend whose Mad Men-era parents threw fabulous parties, but whose alcoholism deeply hurt him and his siblings. As children, they had to clean up the empty empty liquor bottles and ashtrays from their parents’ boozy socializing, and try to find food for themselves. As he put it to me, everybody else knew his parents as fun-loving party people. “They had the parties, but we” — meaning him and his siblings — “got the hangover.”

Here’s a punch-in-the-gut essay in the Washington Post by a journalist named Mike Wise, who grew up in the 1960s as the child of two druggies, and who is sick to death of 1960s nostalgia, and pop culture’s new interest in psychedelics. He writes:

But what if you weren’t merely a child of the Sixties but just … a child? What if you couldn’t trust anyone to be your caregiver under 30? And what if, over time, you grew so sick and tired of hearing about how great it all had been that you just wanted to tell everyone to stop the revisionist history and shut the hell up?


One afternoon, some 50 years ago, those lyrics [The Moody Blues’ “Nights In White Satin”] were accompanied by the siren of an ambulance, pulling up behind our faded, blue Buick station wagon in the driveway. Strangers in white uniforms stormed into my parents’ bedroom, where they pumped my mother’s stomach to rid her of whatever drugs she had overdosed on.

My father told me to take my 4-year-old sister into my room down the hall to amuse her, play a game, do anything to pretend Mom wasn’t OD’ing and needed to be revived.

I was almost 6.

I am 55 now, and even now I keep hearing these homespun yarns about 500,000 people gathering in Upstate New York on a dairy farm in August of 1969 for something so much grander and more majestic than just a rock festival.

But the “Woodstock” album still takes me to the same unsafe, dimly lit corner bedroom on Dogaway Drive, where it’s just me and my sister still terrified we will be all alone tomorrow.


Virginia was the “good” babysitter. She had Coke-bottle glasses, made authentic tamales from her native Mexico and was the only woman beyond our grandmother and our aunt we felt safe with at that age. One night when my father came by her house to pick us up, Virginia asked Dad if he had hit my mother.

Feigning sleep on the couch the ways kids do, I still hear my father’s words — even though I would not understand them until years later.

“I only hit her once, slapping her in the bathroom,” he said. “I did it after she asked what it would be like if we gave the kids a little LSD.”

Whether he lied so he wouldn’t come across as a wife-beater or whether my mother’s nervous breakdown prevented her from being parental, I don’t know. All I knew was that Mom and Dad took drugs and the ambulance came to our house so Mom wouldn’t die.

Read it all. Wise is especially hard on LSD.

What kind of pain are indulgent parents today, living out their utopian fantasies of sexual experimentation, tearing down gender, and normalizing pot and acid, inflicting on their children? We will find out. You’d have thought that the failures of the Sixties would have taught us a lesson we would never forget, but the Boomers who became the custodians of historical memories of that era were nostalgists.

I wonder if anybody is going to be nostalgic for the era of 150 genders, and destroying the human personality to liberate it. As crazy as the Sixties druggies were, they weren’t that crazy.

As a chaser, here’s a link to Joan Didion’s seminal 1967 essay about hippie culture in San Francisco, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” Here’s how it opens:

The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scrawled. It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers. Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held the society together. People were missing. Children were missing. Parents were missing. Those who were left behind filed desultory missing-persons reports, then moved on themselves.

It was not a country in open revolution. It was not a country under enemy siege. It was the United States of America in the year 1967, and the market was steady and the GNP high, and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose, and it might have been a year of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people had the uneasy apprehension that it was not. All that seemed clear was that at some point we had aborted ourselves and butchered the job, and because nothing else seemed so relevant I decided to go to San Francisco. San Francisco was where the social hemorrhaging was showing up. San Francisco was where the missing children were gathering and calling themselves “hippies.” When I first went to San Francisco, I did not even know what I wanted to find out, and so I just stayed around awhile and made a few friends.

A sign on Haight Street, San Francisco:

Last Easter Day
My Christopher Robin wandered away.
He called April 10th
But he hasn’t called since
He said he was coming home
But he hasn’t shown.

If you see him on Haight
Please tell him not to wait
I need him now
I don’t care how
If he needs the bread
I’ll send it ahead.

If there’s hope
Please write me a note
If he’s still there
Tell him how much I care
Where he’s at I need to know
For I really love him so!


I am looking for somebody called Deadeye (all single names in this story are fictitious; full names are real), and I hear he is on the Street this afternoon doing a little business, so I keep an eye out for him and pretend to read the signs in the Psychedelic Shop on Haight Street when a kid, 16, 17, comes in and sits on the floor beside me.

“What are you looking for?” he says.

I say nothing much.

“I been out of my mind for three days,” he says. He tells me he’s been shooting crystal, which I pretty much know because he does not bother to keep his sleeves rolled down over the needle tracks. He came up from Los Angeles some number of weeks ago, he doesn’t remember what number, and now he’ll take off for New York, if he can find a ride. I show him a sign on the wall offering a ride to Chicago. He wonders where Chicago is. I ask where he comes from. “Here,” he says. I mean before here. “San Jose. Chula Vista, I dunno,” he says. “My mother’s in Chula Vista.”

A few days later I see him in Golden Gate Park. I ask if he has found a ride to New York. “I hear New York’s a bummer,” he says.