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Anarchist Mom

I first met Liz Seymour some 20 years ago. She lived then in the same house where she now lives, in Greensboro, N.C. She was (and still is) roughly ten years older than me, a Smith grad with a bohemian streak who wrote freelance articles for national magazines and newspapers, often about the home furnishings industry that had a strong presence in the N.C. piedmont.

I never fell completely out of touch with her — it’s a long story, for another time perhaps — but it wasn’t until her daughter Isabel came to New York as a Columbia student that I really got reconnected. That’s because Isabel had made an interesting lifestyle choice: she had become an anarchist. I first became aware of this when Isabel was arrested for her role in “disrupting” the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. Isabel was about 19 or 20 at the time. She wrote her family a heartfelt essay, her version of “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” explaining why she had come to dislike and/or distrust government and capitalism in particular. It was a very compelling letter, eschewing anger for explanation, wide-eyed but hardly naive. It was so compelling, in fact, that Isabel won an unlikely convert to her anarchist cause: her own mom, Liz.

At the time, I was researching a book on the psychology of money. I interviewed Isabel extensively about her life and philosophy, and realized she’d make a good chapter. When I learned that her mom had also been won over, I knew that the chapter would be even better. So when Isabel graduated from Columbia, I volunteered to drive her and all her stuff back to Greensboro and spend a few days in Liz Seymour’s house in Greensboro, which by that time she had turned into an anarchist collective.

It was a very interesting few days, to say the least. I went dumpster diving for food with mom and daughter; hung out as they cooked up dinner for their Food Not Bombs charity; interviewed the roaming cast of characters that came through Liz’s home, most of them young and punky and pissed off at someone or other. All of them tried to live as far off the grid of capitalism as they could. Sometimes this meant shoplifting or bartering or hitchhiking. A few of them participated in medical trials down in Research Triangle Park that paid a lot of money for a few days of swallowing pills and powders that they were assured wouldn’t do them much damage.

The weirdest disconnect for me was that I was closing an article for the Times over the phone that week, a piece about youngish inheritors and how the flood of money changes their lives. (This, too, was part of my research for the psychology of money book.) And here I was in an anarchist enclave where the inheritance had traveled in the opposite direction: Isabel had turned middle-class Liz into Anarchist Mom.

A few weeks after that reporting trip to Greensboro, I took another reporting trip, this time to Chicago to meet an economist named Steve Levitt. I hoped he too might fit into my psychology of money book, though I doubted it, since his research had almost nothing to do with money. But it turned out even better than that: that trip to Chicago begat what came to be known as Freakonomics. Sadly, the original book was put on the backburner and, eventually, abandoned.

Of all the reporting and research I did for that book, the anarchist story was easily among the strongest. The way things look now, I am pretty sure I will never write it up. But here’s the good news: Liz Seymour, Anarchist Mom herself, has started a blog, and is working toward writing a book of her own. She is a wonderful writer, and I am sure her book will tell the story far better than I ever could have. She is such a good writer that you may find her blog enjoyable even if her politics make you uncomfortable. You cannot help but learn a lot from reading it, and you cannot help but think a lot. I hope Liz hurries up and finishes her book, because I can’t wait to see her and her band of anarchists on Oprah.