Skip to main content

The Mainstreaming of 70s' "Psychobabble."

Linguist Geoff Nunberg considers how new-age psycho-babble has made It's way Into the corporate room.

05:05

Other segments from the episode on January 31, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 31, 2000: Interview with Aaron Kipnis; Interview with Colin Thubron; Commentary on business language.

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JANUARY 31, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 020101np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Interview With Aaron Kipnis
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

BARBARA BOGAEV, GUEST HOST: From WHYY in Philadelphia, this is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, filling in for Terry Gross.

Thirty-five years ago, Aaron Kipnis was a teenager caught up in the juvenile justice system. Now he's a psychologist working with at-risk boys. On today's FRESH AIR, we talk with Kipnis. His new book is "Angry Young Men."

Also, traveling through Russia's equivalent of America's Wild West. Writer Colin Thubron tells us about his trip through Siberia, a land of endless forest, permafrost, and the Gulag. It's the subject of his new book.

And linguist Geoff Nunberg on how '70s psychobabble has made it into the corporate boardroom.

That's all coming up on FRESH AIR.

First, the news.

(NEWS BREAK)

BOGAEV: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.

There's very little in his new book about boys at risk, "Angry Young Boys" (ph), that Aaron Kipnis hasn't experienced firsthand. Kipnis's mother gave him up to foster care when he was 4. He was first arrested when he was 11, and then spent the next seven years living in juvenile detention centers or on the streets, trash-picking and stealing to support himself.

Kipnis eventually turned his life around with the help of a sympathetic parole officer. He's now a clinical psychologist, author, and consultant on male psychology. He's the author of "Knights Without Armor" and co-author of "What Men and Women Really Want."

In "Angry Young Boys," Kipnis writes about social, economic, and cultural forces that lead boys to violence, including poverty, domestic abuse, and the brutality of our juvenile justice system, where many nonviolent youth offenders grow into hardened criminals. He also writes about his childhood experience as a ward of the state of California.

I asked Aaron Kipnis what led his mother to first put him in foster care.

AARON KIPNIS, "ANGRY YOUNG MEN": Well, like many teenage mothers, she didn't have adequate support, really. She didn't have the financial, emotional support, familial support, educational and economic opportunities needed to be able to adequately sustain caring for herself as well as a child. And after about a year of -- after divorcing my father, she just gave up.

BOGAEV: What did you think then, back then, what -- why she had abandoned you?

KIPNIS: Well, I think like most boys who are -- or most children who are abandoned, you think you must have done something wrong. And so I grew up thinking, for many, many years, that I was a bad boy, I was somehow flawed, because if I was a good boy, I wouldn't have been abandoned.

BOGAEV: And your mom would pop back into your life and talk about maybe you coming home, and then disappear again?

KIPNIS: There was that kind of dynamic, and she remarked at some point to a man who turned out to be pretty abusive towards me. So that -- she tried to bring me back to the home then, but that's when I started running away and getting involved in the criminal justice system, trying to escape his violence.

BOGAEV: So you ran away from home, from your stepfather, when you were 11. What was the incident that made you leave?

KIPNIS: He beat me up. (laughs) And I was little and he was big, and it scared me pretty bad, and I thought I should get out of there. So I ran away, and I would up in Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles.

BOGAEV: After a time in detention, they sent you back to your stepfather's house, your mother's house, and the beatings continued. Did you ever fight back?

KIPNIS: Well, yes, I went in and out of Juvenile Hall during that period, and by the time I was 14, I was really toughened up, because you have to be tough in the juvenile institutions. If you're not, then you're really at risk for being abused by the older boys in a variety of ways.

So I found out, even though I was small, that if I was quick to react, that people would leave me alone, and if I acted a little crazy, all the better. So I -- by the time I was 14, I felt quite confident and powerful in my fighting ability, so one day my stepfather hit me, and I hit him back. And a major battle ensued. It was the first time I had ever stood up to him.

BOGAEV: Did it work? Did it stop the beating?

KIPNIS: Yes, but it had to escalate to -- he came after me with a pool cue. We had a pool table out in the garage that my mom won on a game show. And I kept -- I had a hunting knife that I kept hidden out in the garage with some of my other little things, you know, cigar boxes full of bird wings and marbles and stuff like that. And I grabbed the knife, and I said, "OK, take your best shot, but if you miss, I'm going to kill you."

And it was the one and only time in my entire life that I was resolutely prepared to kill another human being. And I think he saw that, even though I was just a kid. He could see it in my eyes that I was serious, I'd had enough. And he never hit me again after that.

But I slept with that knife under the pillow for whatever months I remained in their household.

BOGAEV: Now, you left home after a number of these incidents, and you spent some time on the street in Hollywood, in Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, in the Tenderloin district. How did you support yourself as a homeless kid?

KIPNIS: Oh, the way most homeless adolescents do, petty thefts, car -- rifling cars, prostitution was the most consistent and best-paying activity. And I always tried to get work, but I -- you know, after you're on the street for a week, you're kind of scruffy, (laughs) and it's hard to get legitimate employment. And people just generally don't want to hire teenagers who don't have an address or a telephone or any kind of references.

So you just -- the criminal element kind of takes you in under their wing and exploits you, to whatever degree they can, and you do what you can to exploit them back. Later on in my -- you know, when I was 16, 17, I started selling drugs and got out of the prostitution, which was something that always made me pretty uncomfortable.

BOGAEV: What did you charge as a kid?

KIPNIS: Oh, I was cheap. I gave myself away, you know. I missed my chance to, you know, sell my innocence for a good price. Who knew that it really had any value? Ten bucks, 20 bucks a time. Twenty bucks was really, like, would really make me happy. I mean, that could keep me in food for a week.

BOGAEV: It seems like a lot of kids do drugs to just deal with -- deal with the situation. Did you do drugs at the time to ease your conflict about it?

KIPNIS: Everybody on the street does. They either drink or take drugs. It's painful to be homeless, it's painful to be outside the norm, the mainstream. And the way most homeless -- not just kids but adults deal with that pain, the physical discomfort, the emotional pain, the fear and anxiety, living in kind of a dangerous and tenuous life, is generally to resort to some kind of way of numbing yourself. And drugs and alcohol can be very effective.

BOGAEV: You attempted suicide a couple times as a kid while living on the streets. Did the prostitution precipitate that?

KIPNIS: Yes, you know, I'm -- I've always been heterosexually oriented, but you couldn't -- boys can't really make a living being heterosexual prostitutes in the way that girls can. Women are just -- aren't willing to pay for sex with boys in the same way that men are with young women. So you wind up working the gay trade, whether you're gay or straight.

And it was, you know, emotionally confusing and troubling, and I think one of the things that contributed to my sense of despair, not the only thing, but -- and it's hard to recollect exactly what made me feel like I just couldn't go on, but I definitely made those attempts and wound up in a -- at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, a mental hospital, as a result.

BOGAEV: It seems really ludicrous to ask, or even to consider, but at any point during your street years, did you try to go to school?

KIPNIS: Actually, I did. I hadn't been in school -- well, I did a little bit of the ninth grade before I started getting jammed up in the institutions. But when I was 16, I tried to go to Hollywood High. I just -- you know, I was longing for some kind of normal experience. I wanted to just spend part of my day with normal kids and doing normal things. And still had it in the back of my mind that I could get a high school diploma.

But it was really too difficult. School takes a lot of time, and when you're on the street, providing for just your own survival takes up a great, you know, a great deal of the day. So I just couldn't keep it up, and I dropped out.

BOGAEV: When did things start to change in your life?

KIPNIS: Well, I graduated from juvenile institutions to the California Youth Authority, because I'd violated probation several times. And CYA was, you know -- Youth Authority is really a euphemism for prison for young people. And that was a more serious experience. It was frightening. It was challenging. The level of violence and confrontation and encounter with the other older, many of them gang-related, kids called for a whole new level of vigilance and toughness to survive in that environment.

So I had a compassionate parole officer, finally, who came along and scratched his head and said, "What are you doing in Youth Authority?" You know, he looked at my record, said, "This is ridiculous. You've never even been arrested for a crime."

So he got me into a halfway house, which was run by the California Youth Authority, was the first such facility they ever had, which was -- I think there were six or eight of us living in a house in Los Angeles downtown, and, you know, it was a nonabusive environment. There were house parents there and there were meals on the table, and I had a clothing allowance.

And I started working. I got a job working for L.A. County Schools stamping numbers on teachers' checks, the same school system that wouldn't let me enter because at 17, I was, like, you know, the ninth grade was the last one I had even any credits for, one semester.

And when I was 19, my parole officer helped me get into a community college in Los Angeles, LACC, and I got a sense that this was going to be a much better road than criminal activity, which really, I mean, never paid very well for me, at least, and doesn't for most others that I could see.

So I just kept pursuing an education, and I kept taking student loans, getting whatever grants I could. I kind of became a professional student and worked my way through the California university system, working part time, coming in and out of school over the years, until I finally got my Ph.D. in clinical psychology.

BOGAEV: I'm talking with Aaron Kipnis. He's the president of the Fatherhood Coalition. He's a psychologist who specializes in gender issues and male psychology. His new book about violent boys is called "Angry Young Men."

We're going to take a break now, Aaron, and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

BOGAEV: If you're just joining us, my guest is psychologist Aaron Kipnis. He specializes in gender issues. His new book is "Angry Young Men."

Aaron, your story began with domestic abuse, and really everything seemed to follow from what happened at home and the chaos of a broken home. Does your research show that male child abuse go unnoticed because boys are less likely to admit it than the girls are?

KIPNIS: Yes, this is a very dicey topic, because really, you know, 20, 30 years ago, we were really in denial about the sexual abuse of girls, and it took advocates for girls, advocates for women, feminists, the women's movement, to come out of denial and say, Wait a second, this is really going on, this isn't just a fantasy. And so today we accept it. We know that there are, you know, a certain proportion, number of girls that suffer abuse.

But, you know, in our culture we generally have this ideal, or this ethos, that boys should be toughened up. And a lot of boys buy into that, and so do their parents and teachers, unconsciously, to some degree. And moreover, because boys want to be seen as tough and not as victims, as you suggested, they're much less likely to report when they are physically or sexually abused. And a number of surveys bear this out.

BOGAEV: So part of the problem is that boys don't get any attention until they commit a crime.

KIPNIS: Right. One of the things we say in psychology is, girls act in, and boys act out. What that means is, we often see that girls who have been abused internalize it, so they develop eating disorders or depression, or they -- you know, they hurt themselves, because they're not socialized so much to act out.

But boys, when they're hurt and angry, tend to strike out against the environment that has allowed that to happen to them. And then they start getting some attention.

BOGAEV: There's a lot of concern right now with violence in the schools in the wake of Columbine and other school shootings, and it's given rise to this zero tolerance policy, a trend toward zero tolerance for violence, aggression, drugs, and weapons. And it seems to me there's this -- a confusion or a contradiction in zero tolerance where it applies to boys, that on one hand, schools can't foster boys' aggressiveness. They talk -- there's this idea that boys will be boys, and that a bruised place or a bloody nose isn't really taken seriously if it's a boy, that that's just -- fighting is part of being a boy.

But on the other hand, we have zero tolerance for aggression and for any of the accessories of aggression. Do you find this contradiction to be borne out too?

KIPNIS: Yes, moreover, zero tolerance is like a dragnet that is sweeping unprecedented numbers of boys out of the schools and into the juvenile justice system. Now boys are being suspended at the drop of a hat for smoking, for swearing, for acting out, for being boisterous, for kissing a girl on the cheek, like, you know, 5- and 6-year-old boys, for smoking cigarettes, not to mention drugs, alcohol, weapons.

And yet, you know, violence -- most kids respect schools as sanctuaries. The violence in schools is nothing compared to the violence that adults perpetrate on kids. And here, for example, there are more children killed by adults every single week in America than children kill other children in schools in an entire year. We go in and say, Just say no to sex. But our president can't just say no to sex. We say, Just say no to drugs. But all around them, kids see adults who are abusing drugs or abusing alcohol, in the movies, in -- on television and in their neighborhoods and their homes.

BOGAEV: So if zero tolerance is a red herring, what's a better way of going about sex education, drug -- antidrug education?

KIPNIS: Well, I'm so glad you asked me that, because there are -- and we've been talking a lot about the problems, but there are approaches that really work well in helping kids overcome some of these problems. Our -- this generation of adolescents is the smartest, best informed, hippest generation that's ever come along in America. I mean, through their exposure in the Internet, in the media, they're much more sophisticated in a lot of ways than we were in the generation behind us.

This is, to some degree, a consumer generation. And what they want to be is astute consumers. And you can reach them that way. So instead of telling them, All these things are bad, don't do it, even though we do, to say, These things have varying degrees of harm. Let's investigate the potential harm for engaging in unsafe sex or premarital sex or using marijuana or speed or heroin or aspirin.

And go through the range of risks so that understanding that probably a third -- the statistics bear out that a third of those kids are using and will continue to use drugs and alcohol throughout their school years. None of these massive expenditures on drug campaigns have done anything, really, to change the statistics.

And what we call this approach is harm reduction, is to give them -- to really educate them so that they can make intelligent choices to either abstain altogether, which we would like, or, if they're going to indulge themselves in risky behaviors, to minimize the risk by being really informed about what is most dangerous, what is less dangerous.

Well, when you come in across the board and say, you know, All these things are, you know, from the road to hell, kids just tine out. When we tell them, We think you're mature enough to make a choice, but there's all -- and then there's only one right choice you can make, they tune out. But they respond very well to being treated with respect and getting honest information, and that, I guess we would say, education over indoctrination.

BOGAEV: I'm curious, you live in Santa Barbara. When you see kids hanging out around your house, not even gang kids but just plain teenagers, boys, do you have that kind of fear that so many people have, and that you're talking about, really, throughout this interview, that boys are dangerous, and that teenagers...

KIPNIS: Yes.

BOGAEV: ... are people to be afraid of?

KIPNIS: Yes, well, I think I share the concerns of most middle-class people. I -- you know, I'm 51 now, I'm an academic. I'm not a tough street kid any more. I'm a little pudgy and I have a wife, I have a daughter. They park their cars on the street, they walk through these neighborhoods. We live about one -- we live one block away from an area that has pretty high gang activity. People probably don't think about that in Santa Barbara, but actually we have 26 different gangs in the region.

So when those boys come and they're hanging out with the boombox and the, you know, hanging out on the corner, which they do sometimes, I feel a little apprehensive. But the one thing I have noticed is that if I just treat them like anybody else I would on the street -- nod, say, Hello, how you doing, nice day, huh? Sunny, it's warm today -- they tend to respond with a smile or, you know, kind of -- or a nod or...

And recently I hired -- I got so far behind on my -- just my work around the house after publishing this book, and I hired one of these boys to come and help me around the house for a couple of days. And we had such a great time together. And he was such a good worker. He helped me out so much. And when he left, I felt that I had made a kind of a link with his community. And now when I see them around, you know, and that one kid is with them, you know, I greet him by name.

And I have no way of verifying this, but I believe that if some of those boys were thinking about doing some harm to me or my property that this kid would talk them out of it and say, No, hey, wait a second, that guy's cool, he -- you know, he gave me work.

BOGAEV: Aaron Kipnis's new book is "Angry Young Men." He teaches clinical psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute.

I'm Barbara Bogaev, and this is FRESH AIR.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Barbara Bogaev, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Aaron Kipnis
High: Clinical psychologist Aaron Kipnis works with at-risk young men. He's the author of the book "Angry Young Men: How Parents, Teachers, and Counselors Can Help 'Bad Boys' Become Good Men." Kipnis was also an at-risk young man. He was a foster child, and ran away from home when his stepfather beat him. This led to his involvment in the juvenile justice system. A sympathetic counselor helped him find his way to a halfway house, then to an education, and a way out of the life he led.
Spec: Aaron Kipnis; Youth; Violence; Crime

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Interview With Aaron Kipnis

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JANUARY 01, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 013102NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Interview With Colin Thubron
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:30

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

BARBARA BOGAEV, GUEST HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.

Colin Thubron's new travel book, "In Siberia," begins with this haunting description. "The ice fields are crossed forever by a man in chains. In the farther distance, perhaps, a reindeer drifts or a hunter makes a shadow on the snow. But that is all. Siberia -- it fills one-twelfth of the land mass of the whole earth. Yet this is all it leaves for certain in the mind, a bleak beauty and an indelible fear."

Thubron covered nearly 15,000 miles of this vast land, traveling by train, boat, car, and foot from Mongolia to the Arctic Circle, from the Jural Mountains north of Kazakhstan as far as China's easternmost border. "In Siberia" is Thubron's third book in a series of Russian travelogues. It follows "Where Nights Are Longest," about his travels in western Russia during the end of the Breszhnev era, and "The Lost Heart of Asia," about a trip to the Muslim republics of Central Asia after the collapse of the Soviet empire.

He says he wrote about Siberia against his will. It was simply too imposing, both historically and physically, to ignore.

In the West, Siberia is synonymous with exile and brutality. It's the land of the Gulag, the network of prison and death camps under Stalin.

I asked Thubron what Siberia means to Russians.

COLIN THUBRON, "IN SIBERIA": Since Czarist times, since the 18th century, virtually, it's been a place where Western Russia has expelled its unwanted elements, whether they're criminal, dissident, whatever, so the Russians are, you know, completely used to it as being synonymous with fear.

But there's also been this other strange countervailing feeling about Russia that it was a land of -- Siberia -- that it was a land of innocence in some way, it was a land where traditionally peasants went who were rather more enterprising than those who stayed back in Western Russia after the evolution of serfdom and find a flood of fairly poor peasantry going out to have add sort of initiative, could carve out lands as much as they wanted from (inaudible) land, basically, could escape authority, as it was -- whether it was aristocratic, Czarist authority or ecclesiastical authority, a land, in other words, Siberia, that was -- suggested a greater freedom.

And so it was also, oddly enough, a land that they thought of as innocent, a place where -- a Siberia, really, that was uncontaminated by the West, whereas Western Russia, they always felt as all -- many Russians have felt it was corrupted by the West. Siberia was a sort of a central Russia or place where Russia would like to think itself was.

BOGAEV: So it was Russia's Wild, Wild West, right...

THUBRON: Exactly, it was Russia's (inaudible)...

BOGAEV: ... in this case Wild, Wild East, right.

THUBRON: ... Russia's wild East, (inaudible), yes, the sort of place of enterprise. But also this idea that it was purity, peasants, even located their belavodya (ph) here, as they called it, their paradise, literally.

BOGAEV: One of your first stops was the site where the last czar, Nicholas, and his family were assassinated, were executed. What kind of memorial exists at the site?

THUBRON: There was nothing when I came there except a small shrine on one side. It -- the place had been bulldozed over in the Brezhnev period, in the 1970s, when, oddly enough, Boris Yeltsin was the local Communist Party chief who had ordered it. He later regretted it. And so the merchant's house where the family had been assassinated was bulldozed away, and there was level stretch of tarmac.

But in the back, there was the garden where the czar and his daughters had walked in the last days, and I wandered around there. It was sort of great of (ph) tangled wilderness now. And typically Russia, found an ex-convict living there on a rubbish dump who is just a sort of vagrant, and he would steal the flowers which people left at the memorial and resell them the next day.

There weren't many, actually, visiting the memorial. It was interesting, just a few, many of them religious.

BOGAEV: Why did you go?

THUBRON: I went, I think, because, well, Ekaterinberg, this place, is the -- I suppose it's the westernmost part or the westernmost city of Siberia. I went because places like that give you an indication of what people are feeling about their political situation, I think. And often I pick places to go because they speak for the present. Obviously Ekaterinberg appears to belong to the past, what people associate it with is the death of the czar and his family.

But by going there now, you see, in a way, how modern Russians feel about their czarist past, whether they revere it, whether they ignore it, whether they detest it, simply by how people are behaving at that site. And on the whole, I have to say I found that they were not very interested. There was a tiny trickle of pilgrims, some of them eccentric, and it seemed to me, talking to Russians later, that the czars meant rather little.

BOGAEV: Early on in your trip, you visited Vorkuta, and that was the town near the coal mines that became the death camps for thousands. What's left of the camps?

THUBRON: Very little now. Even man;y of the mines are closed down. But beside each mine, you would find, if you looked, many graves of the miners simply left without names on them, just numbers lying in the undergrowth. And you would find the remains of these enormous long barracks where the miners were housed with usually just a stove to keep them warm. And those were made of wood and have sort of crashed into the earth. And you see them sort of scattered about. And some tangles of barbed wire here and there, a fallen watchtower of a familiar kind.

But really almost nothing else. Here and there, they've been preserved, and people are actually living in them. In one or two cases, even people are the descendants of those who worked there, or those who worked there themselves, even, in one or two cases, because they had nowhere else to go. And when they were liberated, so-called, they were still stuck there.

BOGAEV: Do they talk of their experience?

THUBRON: They do, many reluctantly. It's not anything that they usually, I found, wanted to share, and there was a sort of sickening of it. But it was always very interesting when somebody was prepared to talk, because their attitude was so unfamiliar, I think, to us in the West, and we've all been brought up to believe that the way to deal with something like -- with the death camps is to remember. I mean, this is the Jewish Western way, we have to remember, otherwise we repeat the mistake.

The Russians don't appear to feel that, not in their bones. They almost seem to accept it in a way that I found very hard to deal with when I was talking to them. I wanted them to be angry, I wanted them to allocate blame, and they wouldn't. They seemed to more or less treat it as if suffering was natural, that it came out of the sky. And you would try to get them to blame Stalin and they wouldn't.

One old woman I remember in particular who had been 12 years in the labor camps said, "I'm bitter for all my life's waste," she said. And I said, "Bitter for what, exactly?" And who was she angry with? And she said, "I'm bitter with the present regime," is what she was basically saying, "bitter with the post-Gorbachev era, because everything that I labored for in the camps, building my -- building roads in the camps, has gone to ruin. You know, it's all falling to bits in this age where the Soviet Union's gone."

In other words, she was lamenting the purposelessness of it, not inhumanity, but sheer purposelessness of it. She was saying that she had labored for those 12 years for the Soviet Union, for Stalin, he who had actually been responsible for her imprisonment. And she wasn't going to blame them, she was going to blame the modern age for having destroyed what she in her slavery had attempted to build up.

BOGAEV: Did you find many people nostalgic, then, for the communist regime?

THUBRON: Yes. Maybe less for communism than for Stalin. I think not for communism per se, and there are those, of course, but in general they have a nostalgia for power, for -- the Russians always seem ready to surrender freedom in exchange for a feeling of being protected. This is historical, not just from the communist period. They seem to be almost, as one Russian told me, you know, kissing the axe that beheads them, in love with suffering. That perhaps is to take it a bit far, but they seem always to be nostalgic now -- not always, but many, nostalgic for Stalin.

Which means, I think, not for communism but for the feeling of being protected, for stable prices, for assured jobs, assured accommodation, and for the prestige of being again part of a great empire. They miss that.

BOGAEV: I'm talking with Colin Thubron. He's a travel writer, also a novelist. He's written about his travels in the Middle East and China. His new book "In Siberia," is the last in a trilogy about the Russian lands.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

BOGAEV: Back with writer Colin Thubron. His new book is "In Siberia."

Many of the indigenous tribes in Siberia that you were interested in finding more about were wiped out by communism. You went to the far north, an arctic, remote fishing village, and -- help me out here -- the name is Potolova?

THUBRON: Potolova, yes.

BOGAEV: Potolova. There are still some native peoples of the Ensi (ph) tribe there. What was that town like?

THUBRON: That town was terrible. I had hoped that the further I went from the main Russian industrial centers, say, in Siberia, the better things might be. But in fact they seemed to be worse. That town was a little town of reindeer herders once, and a fisherman. But the reindeer pastures had been so much despoiled by fallout by acid rain from the nickel processing factories 100 miles to the north that the reindeer were fading away.

And there were various other things, like oil pipelines, which deflected wild reindeer, even, from the areas, which used to be a source of -- for hunters. And the population was really reduced to having to fish on the Yanase (ph) River, which they were doing, but it wasn't enough, really, to keep them going. They were -- it was a village of about 500, half of them Russian, I suppose, and half of them Ensi, who were a kind of Turkic people. They were really drinking themselves to death, one has to say. The life expectation had gone down to about 45. Many of them died violent deaths. And the whole sort of morale of the place had disintegrated.

Before 1989, the Russians had sent to these isolated arctic communities consumer goods at a reasonable price, and food products. That system fell -- disappeared in the last of the Gorbachev years, and now they're reliant on commercial enterprises for doing the same thing, and it's not really happening. And they can hardly keep themselves alive.

BOGAEV: What kind of goods are there on the store shelves?

THUBRON: Well, precious little. About once a month a boat would come down the Yanase, open up a hatch, and dispense cheap vodka above all, which is one thing that was still cheap that the fishermen could afford. Otherwise they would simply get a few, you know, canned goods of some sort of meat, maybe, and a few sort of rudimentary vegetables, and that was about it. There was a lot of malnutrition, undoubtedly, and high blood pressure, various diseases which those extreme temperatures invite.

And it -- even when I was there, a man -- a young man had simply dropped dead by his boat and was being buried on the hill opposite.

BOGAEV: Under such extreme conditions, is there any sense of attachment to their heritage, or a spiritual center to the people?

THUBRON: I had hoped to find among the Turkic Ensi, who were shamanist originally, were animists, that there would be traces of a culture to which they might be clinging or getting back. There were terribly few. I hunted for them in vain, and I'd done a bit of research back in libraries in the West about the old Ensi gods and beliefs. And when I tried to talk to them about it, I found I knew more than they did in some instances. They had forgotten the names of their legendary heroes and their gods, and they had also lost the Christianity that they'd inherited in the czarist period. And now they'd lost the communism that had been given them in the 20th century.

And so they'd been sort of released into a no-man's land. The only place that I found some sort of pagan vestige was in the cemetery, which is so often the kind of repository of a conservative tradition. And they had kept a few customs there. I remember the last day I was in that village, just walking up the hillside in the cemetery, and suddenly, beyond the graves, which had Christian crosses on them, or communist stars, there were these other ones which had reindeer horns on them, banked up (ph), reindeer skulls were hanging in the trees. And on every grave, there was a bowl or kettle which had been ritually gouged out so that it was destroyed. Somebody had made a hole in it and turned upside down.

When I left, I asked an old herdsman about this, and he said, "Well, you see, the afterlife is the opposite of this one. Things which are the right way up over here are upside-down over there. Things that are upside-down here are the right way up. Over there, everything is the opposite. And so these gifts on the graves have to be that way up, otherwise the dead will not find them," he said. And so he conceived that the afterlife, being the opposite of this one, was a paradise.

BOGAEV: Colin Thubron is my guest. He's a travel writer. He's written a trilogy of books about Russian lands. His new book is "In Siberia."

Siberia was off limits for so many years, until, I think -- was it 1993?

THUBRON: Yes, '92, '93.

BOGAEV: So in preparing for your trip, did you even have guidebooks?

THUBRON: Yes, there were a few guidebooks that had visited towns, usually, but they, you know, visited them perhaps a year or two before I had, and if I wanted to see somewhere that had been, say, off limits, which meant almost everywhere before 1991, and that somewhere was fairly small, then I just had to take a risk on what it was like, you know. I didn't know.

BOGAEV: Hitch a ride?

THUBRON: Yes, or go on a local bus, take a boat if we were going up the Yanase. I went up the Yanase to the Arctic Circle. Usually there was something there. The Russians are great ones for hitchhiking, and if you were standing by the side of the road, somebody -- you would pay them. It was almost a sort of accepted system, that you would give them a little bit of money, anyway, towards their petrol expenses. And so it was -- that was easy, provided there was traffic on the road. There was usually some sort of lorry traffic, trucks.

BOGAEV: There must have been times when you didn't get a ride for hours, when you were out on the road in the cold. How do you cope with that? You just know something will come along?

THUBRON: Patience, I suppose, and maybe a certain -- perhaps arrogant self-confidence. I've always felt that I was going to be all right in these countries. The Russians in general, particularly out in the villages and so on, are basically kindly. I didn't feel threatened on the whole. And I never really got a sense that I was badly -- or hardly ever did I get a sense that I was badly in danger.

And you just need to wait, honestly, and to let your sense of time alter. You move out of Western time and into Russian time. And if you have to wait a couple of days for a lorry to get the petrol that you need to get you to a certain place, then you wait, and it seems to be a part of the personality of the country and the way of journeying. So you feel in a sense that it's not wasted.

BOGAEV: Now, when you traveled before in the Soviet Union, that was the end of the Brezhnev era. Were you followed constantly by the KGB?

THUBRON: Not constantly. Towards the end of my time there, for about, I think, three weeks, I was followed by the KGB. It was very obvious they were following me.

BOGAEV: And they weren't very subtle. (laughs)

THUBRON: They were not terribly subtle. They were terribly well trained, in a way. They all did exactly the same thing, they were always, you know, two or three trucks behind you on the road. I was driving. And it's very hard, I think, to be followed if you are driving. You just have to go, you know, three times around a roundabout and see who does the same thing. And I think what happened, at least I guessed what happened with the KGB that were following me, they were terrified of losing you. If they have to report back to their bosses that they've lost you, that's the worst, and they would much rather risk that you know you're being followed than that they should actually lose you.

So they were pretty -- it was pretty obvious when you were being followed.

BOGAEV: But did they know you were a writer, and did they ever get their hands on your notes or anything that you considered important?

THUBRON: I don't know what they knew. I rather think they didn't know anything much, because my first of many weeks in Russia, I was not followed, I'm sure, because I was going into camps. I started out in the summer there, and the camps are run by students on a temporary basis. I expect they thought that, you know, Western governments could afford to send their spies to smart hotels, and they didn't seem to have regulated the camps.

And for a long time, I think, I -- they didn't seem to be tracing me much. But the moment the camps folded up and I had to go into large hotels, they traced me and started following me. Every large hotel in Russia in those days had a KGB unit, probably still does. And it was then that they started to follow me.

I was prepared when I got to the border, and I drove to a place with the sinister name of Chop (ph) on the Hungarian border, that I would be done over (ph) quite badly, and indeed it did. They stripped me, body searched me, developed the film in my camera, took bits of my car to bits. They were fairly sure that I had been up to something. I hadn't, really. I'd been seeing dissidents, but I hadn't got any information with me, any literature, nothing.

And eventually they were stuck with my notes. They had this diary, really, I had made the notes for my forthcoming book into a diary. And they couldn't read it, because my writing's illegible, even to my friends. It's very small and horrible. And so I was finally summoned out of the bowels of this customs house where a uniformed KGB officer was looking through my diary.

And he said, "Have you developed this writing specially?" he said. I said no, and then he made me read out bits in front of him for about half an hour. He noted one or two little headings there, and he saw "Odessa," so he points, "Odessa, read out that." So I read out, of course. He couldn't read what I had written, so I read out how the sun was sparkling on the waves in Odessa and the birds were singing in the trees and so on.

And after about half an hour -- he was a real Russian. He said, "This is very poetic," he said. "You could publish this."

(LAUGHTER)

THUBRON: I felt a little guilty then.

BOGAEV: That's not a very brutal editor.

THUBRON: No, it was not.

BOGAEV: Colin Thubron, thank you for talking with me today on FRESH AIR.

THUBRON: Thank you.

BOGAEV: Colin Thubron's new book is "In Siberia."

Coming up, Geoff Nunberg on the mainstreaming of '70s psychobabble.

This is FRESH AIR.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Barbara Bogaev, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Colin Thubron
High: Travel writer Colin Thubron's new book about his travels in the heart of Siberia Is "In Siberia." It's the third In his trilogy on the Russian landmass which includes "Where Nights Are Longest" and "The Lost Heart of Asia." Thubron has also written books on the Middle East, China, and Central Asia.
Spec: Russia; Travel; Colin Thubron

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Interview With Colin Thubron

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JANUARY 01, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 013103NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Interview With Geoff Nunberg
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:52

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

BARBARA BOGAEV, GUEST HOST: The language of the New Age movement has found an unlikely home in the corporate conference rooms of America. Geoff Nunberg has these thoughts.

GEOFF NUNBERG, LINGUIST: I was watching a TV business program as the CEO of a large company was explaining why they'd missed their numbers for the previous quarter. They'd had an issue with their Asian markets, he said, and another issue with a sales force reorganization. But he concluded on an upbeat note, I quote, "The issue is to execute, and we're going through these executional issues."

You know who's originally responsible for this "issue" stuff? It's Fritz Perls, the progenitor of the various shoots and stalks of a human potential movement that flourished in the '70s, Gestalt, transactional, existential, Esalen, all the rest. That's when we began to internalize all our external conflicts and to redefine reality as a purely in-house product. Don't look at them, look at yourself.

And the effects on the language are still being played out. Take the way we ask permission. It used to be that you said, "I'm going to take off now, is that OK with you?" Now we say, "Are you OK with that?" It's a small change in syntax, but the perspective is completely inverted. The language has rotated its eyeballs 180 degrees inward. It's as if to say, Before I leave, please tone (ph) your psyche and see if you encounter any raw spots that might prevent you from, as it were, being there for me when I get back.

It was the same point of view that led people to start using "problem" as a euphemism for "disagreement" or "dislike." "I've got a problem with the way she yells at everybody." That was a major step in the annals of confrontation avoidance. Instead of expressing your opinion, you could describe your inner states in a neutral, dispassionate way, like a political boss reporting the sentiment of the party faithful. It's nothing to me one way or the other, but I'm running into a little resistance in the third ward.

The only problem with "problem" is that it has a certain regressive negativity. When you start using the P-word, it's only a small step to using the B-word, blame. That's what led to the brilliant stroke of substituting "issue," which turns what were once obstacles into neutral talking points.

When you tell somebody that there's a problem that has to be fixed, you are, as they say, personalizing your criticism. The team-oriented way to put this is to say that there's an issue that has to be revisited. I expect it's only a matter of time before I hear a baseball announcer saying, He's a good fielder, but he has an issue hitting the curve ball.

Remember when we used to dismiss this sort of talk as psychobabble? That was back in the '70s when all these therapies and fads were having their heyday, most exuberantly out here in northern California. It's the period that Cyra McFadden satirized in her 1977 best seller, "The Serial," which recounted a year in the life of a terminally hip couple in Marin County just over the Golden Gate Bridge.

The book engendered endless mirth in the rest of the country for its dead-on renderings of the lifestyle and language of the moment, and it probably did more than anything else to establish the California joke as a fixture in the late-night talk show monologue.

It's funny, though, when you read McFadden's novel now, the characters' enthusiasms don't strike you as nearly so absurd as they did at the time. Twenty-five years later, it's hard to recall what was so risible about being into jogging, 10-speed bicycles, ecology, capuccino, or women's lib, as people of the time used to call it.

For that matter, it's not clear any more why we thought it was so ridiculous that McFadden's characters should be into saying "be into." Was it really only northern Californians back then who said, "You've got to get your act together," or "I was completely blown away by that"?

And how about that word "process," which the modern corporation would be hard put to live without? It brings you up short to realize that people used to consider it New Age jargon.

A quarter of a century after "The Serial" appeared, the New Age movements that Perls inspired and McFadden satirized are mostly passe. But most of the language they left us has moved into the mainstream, and nowhere more prominently than in the American corporation, where it was imported by H.R. people and management theorists.

Once you strip the talk of its more pointed ideological content, it turned out to be a perfect medium for blurring the hard edges of hierarchy, for bringing people on board and getting them to align with your end-state vision. We've reached the point where the CEO of a Fortune 500 company can talk about "having execution issues," and nobody even thinks to make a Marin County joke.

We all crossed that bridge some time ago.

BOGAEV: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at Stanford University and the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer is Audrey Bentham. Dorothy Ferebee is our administrative asssitant. Roberta Shorrock directs the show.

For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Barbara Bogaev, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Geoff Nunberg
High: Linguist Geoff Nunberg considers how new-age psycho-babble has made its way Into the corporate room.
Spec: Geoff Nunberg; Business

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Interview With Geoff Nunberg
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

Nicole Kidman says being an indoor kid and a bookworm led her to acting

While her friends and family went to the Australian beaches, Kidman stayed indoors reading — and imaged herself as a character in the books. She says reading is what led her to acting. We talk with the Oscar-winning actor about ageism in Hollywood, singing in a cover band as a teenager, and playing Lucille Ball in Being the Ricardos.

07:07

Jazz trio Artifacts gets to the point quickly, and sticks to it, on a new album

Flute player Nicole Mitchell, cellist Tomeka Reid and drummer Mike Reed all came up on Chicago's new jazz scene about 20 years ago. Now they revisit their roots on ... and then there's this.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue