Book Review: Heretic's Heart: a Journey of Spirit And Revolution By Margot Adler

Heretic's Heart:
A Journey Through Spirit and Revolution
by Margot Adler
Beacon Press, 1997
Boston, MA
318 pages, $24 hardcover

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Too often, the 1960s are stereotyped as a decade of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. In her new book, Heretic's Heart: A Journey Through Spirit and Revolution, Margot Adler turns that stereotype on its head as she reveals a time that was, for her, one of spiritual growth and cultural transformation. Adler is New York bureau chief for National Public Radio and an authority on paganism and feminist spirituality.

Drawing upon her journals and personal correspondence, Adler captures the passion and motivation behind her involvement in the many movements of that era: the Berkeley Free Speech movement, the voter registration efforts in Mississippi, the Venceremos Brigade in Cuba, the anti-Vietnam War movement.

The daughter of communist-sympathizing parents, Adler naturally developed ideological sense at a young age. She demonstrated for the integration of Woolworth stores at age 13 and protested against civil defense drills in high school.

Her rite of passage involved leaving the comfort of school and journeying to the heart of the civil rights conflict in the South, while knowing a return to the protection of middle class comfort was inevitable. Writing of her efforts to register southern blacks to vote, she says, “I certainly believed in civil rights and had been taught from an early age to respect people of all races and nations. But beliefs alone would not have brought me to the Mississippi Delta. I felt a call to adventure, a need to throw myself into a new and different world and learn its lessons, to undergo a test of fire.”

The 30 years since have done much to hone her ability to reflect upon her politicized youth. She now describes those times of outrage and direct action as “jubilant,” “electric,” and “luminous,” conveying a sense of wonder at the history that was so rapidly unfolding.

Her own evolution led her to embrace the myth, ceremony, and song of Earth and Pagan traditions. She writes, “The journey of this barefoot minstrel starts in the place where nature and music and mystery flourish. Then, as in all journeys, there is the exposure to fears and trials, and teachers good and bad; there is the great toll that society and culture always extracts. The long time when dreams and talents and desires are submerged, and the ensuing struggle for freedom and values. At the end of my own journey, there is a return to ritual and song.”

Adler's book is exceptional among the many that have been written on the ‘60s – most of which were authored by men. Her recollection of and letters home during the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley weaves her experience of moral outrage together with her own personal struggles. She writes of women's roles in that movement and the sexism she encountered both in Cuba and while working for other causes.

Heretic's Heart sweeps you up in the movements that set the stage for much of what is happening today, casting away the myth that the 60s was strictly about rebellion and hedonism. Adler writes with considerable skill of this period of history when justice and racial rights were concrete goals – not unreachable ideals – and activism brought lasting change. Her book is also a poignant, personal, and revealing 60s memoir from someone who was at the epicenter of social change.

Reviewed by David Kupfer, a freelance writer, environmental analyst, and consultant to various businesses, organizations, and film studios.

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