THE WATTS GHETTO IS WITHIN 20 miles of Palisades High School, Palisades Calif. But no one at the school expected the eruption that occurred in the summer of '65--in fact, none of that year's graduating seniors knew the ghetto existed. Their lives in the affluent suburbs came nowhere near preparing them for the world into which they emerged, a world increasingly aware of an immoral war, of civil rights issues, of women's issues, of all the social injustices that surrounded that suburban existence.
But it was this group, so unprepared for the reality of their society, that Time magazine chose for a cover story in January, 1965, entitled "Today's Teenagers," describing them as representative of America's golden youth. They were wealthy, young and intelligent--they were the ones who were going to inherit Johnson's Great Society.
Michael Medved, co-author of What Really Happened to the Class of '65? agrees with Time that his Palisades class was fairly typical of that generation of college-bound students, that group of upper middle class heroes-to-be. "Not only were we supposed to change the world, but we were going to do it before we were 25," he says, looking a little surprised, now, at the expectations of an older generation. The Palisades High School class of '65, he suggests, serves as a symbol for all those graduating seniors, who suddenly discovered they weren't going to fulfill their parents' ambitious dreams.
Medved and his classmate, David Wallechinsky who co-authored the best-selling People's Almanac with his father, novelist Irving Wallace, decided to go back and find out what happened to the rest of their class, how they dealt with the real world in the ten years since their high school graduation, and perhaps to determine just what in their up-bringing caused the upheavals.
The result, of course, was What Really Happened. Unlike Midge Decter (who asked the same question in her Liberal Parents, Radical Children, but who answered herself with a series of unconvincing fictional stereotypes), Medved and Wallechinsky went back to the people themselves. They interviewed 30 people they had known in high school, 30 people they felt formed a cross-section of their socially--though by no means economically--stratified class. The intellectual, the cheerleader, the social misfit: Medved and Wallechinsky tried to include a little of everything, filling out a picture of the group with profiles of the individuals who composed it, giving depth to their hypotheses about the rebellion of the late '60s.
Some of the changes they found in their classmates are outright amazing. A high school quarterback is now a masseur in Hollywood, preaching the tenets of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness. A student whom everyone else describes as totally lacking in social graces (each biography includes short descriptions of the subject by other people described in the book) lived at the time the book was put together on a small island in Micronesia. A woman who told Time, "You can't marry anyone important without going to college" is now a criminal prosecutor. Another woman, described by her classmate as "an obsessively hard-working student," now lives in an apartment with a floor "covered with candy wrappers, dirty clothes and used paper towels," refusing to talk about anything but her newfound Christianity.
Most of the characters presented in the book have spent the last ten years floating, drifting from occupation to avocation, experimenting with drugs, religions, relationships. By their own account of their lives, few of them displayed any sense of purpose during the first five or six years after high school, although some now seem to be taking their lives in hand. A few of the class followed traditional routes, but they stand out as oddities in a group that has obviously rejected their parents' lifestyles.
Perhaps the saddest account is that of Brock Chester, voted most popular member of his senior class. Chester committed suicide at 24, with no explanation, no warning. Medved and Wallechinsky interviewed his mother and his high school girl friend, trying to fathom his motive; the conclusion they reach, that he could neither live up to his popularity in school or accept his post-graduation anonymity, is couched in his mother's words, making it a lot more palatable than a slick judgment on someone the authors barely knew could have been. The episode may substantiate Medved's idea that Palisades can be seen as a microcosm for that generation: in three radio talk shows the authors have done since the publication of their book, listeners have called in to say the person voted most popular in their high school class of '65 killed himself.
ONE OF THE NICEST things about What Really Happened is the authors' determination to avoid those easy, slick judgments about their characters. Limiting their own role to descriptions and an occasional musing, they allow the people they present to speak for themselves and about each other, using excerpts from interviews. The reader's view is manipulated subtly, by juxtaposition and choice of adjectives--a pleasant change from Decter's brand of opinionated aggressiveness. The subtlety isn't constant, though; every once in a while they throw in a summing-it-all-up pronouncement that detracts from their overall accomplishment. In the profile of Lisa Menzies, whose high school reputation as fast seems well-deserved, and who lives at 28 with a fatherless child and a mother still bringing her groceries, the authors conclude, "In certain respects her life was a paradox:...Despite her hammerblows against convention, she had always been dependent on her parents--to get her out of jail, to shelter her in times of stress, to support her habits and nurture her ambitions. For all Lisa's rebellion, she had won little independence." Fortunately, such pat answers are rarely proferred; they serve mainly to remind one how little the authors do intrude, a temporary annoyance that underlines their general success.
But you can't read What Really Happened without trying to figure out the answer to the puzzle. What did really happen to those wealthy adolescents that turned them into a massive, collective dropout, that took them off the technocratic track? Some suggestions leap into the mind: dependence upon doting parents, whose goal was to give their golden children everything they hadn't had themselves; disillusionment with the values of a system that forced them to worry about the draft after raising them to think that other people did the dirty work; realization that they couldn't meet the expectations of the adult population, expectations they had themselves adopted.
No doubt all of the hypotheses one can propose contain some particle of truth, but the ratio between varies greatly from person to person. As a long-term mass phenomenon, the group that the Palisades Class of '65 is supposed to represent is surprisingly hard to pin down.
For their own conclusion, Medved and Wallechinsky settle for a large dose of the groups' inability to meet their own expectations. "Teenagers today," the Time article concluded," do not think of themselves as 'knights in shining chinos' riding forth on rockets to save the universe. But even the coolest of them know that their careers could be almost that fantastic." The authors of What Really Happened respond:
Time had been right about our wide ranging possibilities, but had not foreseen the fact that we might be paralyzed by them. With the experts of the world waiting expectantly for glorious achievements, how could we possibly disappoint them? And so we struggled forward, constantly shifting our choices, searching in vain for a fate that might be worthy of us.
For their own high school and economic class, the authors may be right. True, they ignore the different world of Watts in their conclusion just as their class did in high school, ignoring the political issues that touched off the disruption of an entire nation. The omission is largely a result of their subject matter: most of their respondents seem just as unaware now as they were in 1965 of social injustice or any possibility for change.
But like the authors, one has to avoid passing too harsh a judgment on the class, despite its failure rate. The class of '65 is not a dead event--its members are still alive, still making decisions, still working out contradictions between their values and their reality. Many of the people described in What Really Happened have already become adults, making reasonable decisions rather than floating around in a haze of options. Their lives go on--professionals, businessmen, masseurs and missionaries--and perhaps in the end they will, in fact, change the world, incorporating their counterculture into their parents' lifestyles. It's hard to pin their rebellion down, true; but maybe that should no longer be the question one asks about them. These are, after all, living people. These profiles are pictures in motion, and the film credits are still a long way off.