When I first read Mitford’s memoir Hons and Rebels, I was charmed by her rebellious and funny voice, and delighted beyond measure to discover (having traveled the road she did) that she’d been a Lefty in her youth and was still one. I’d also left home at seventeen and set off to change the world on a utopian model. My escape was considerably less dramatic and I was fortunate to find a home in a counterculture that supported my initial wanderings and exercises in journalism. I also became passionately involved in a movement–for me the hippie arm of the new left and the movement against the war in Vietnam. I was at the time a serious young girl in an often-claustrophobic world of radicals and revolution. At times, the burden of the struggle seemed contingent on me selling enough underground newspapers for our commune to buy rice and celery for dinner.
By the early eighties, I had long since left commune life. I found work as a part-time Librarian at the same San Francisco College of Mortuary Science that Mitford had eviscerated in The American Way of Death. (Grateful for a job that demanded no credentials) Four mornings a week I would sit at a gigantic oak desk, inhaling formaldehyde and the must of unopened books, revised the plays I’d begun to write. I would filch announcements off the bulletin boards for week-end workshops in “head reconstruction,” and “grief counseling Bar-B-Ques,” and stash these away. Nobody would visit my library for weeks on end, except one young mortician-in-training who desultorily flipped through some books, then finally asked me out. He thought I might enjoy a tour of the building and I did. I saw the classrooms, laboratories, embalming rooms, and in the back yard what looked like twenty plastic gasoline cans full of blood. Once as I was snooping on my own, amid the back issues of “Mortuary Management” and “Casket and Sunnyside,” I found a file folder marked Jessica Mitford. I wish I could tell you there were explosive secret documents inside but it was empty. I always thought she’d get a kick out that, but I never did write to her until now.