Billy Frank Jr – Native American fishing rights activist – died at 83 this week. He had been a guest lecturer in my MPA program many years ago – alongside his late wife, Sue Crystal (d. 2001) — who was one of our faculty members. I did not know either of them well but somehow when these people who played such influential roles in one’s education are gone – it’s certainly a time for reflection. Everyone dies – I know – but despite death’s inevitability, it is natural to reflect on what someone’s place in your life and in the world as a whole meant once they are gone. It’s also a kind of time capsule. I don’t really want to remember my life in 1998-99, but thinking back to Sue Crystal and Billy Frank Jr, it is like I have gone back to that point in time – the hurried, cynical moment when I thought I knew what I wanted and what I was doing – but looking back, I really had no idea.
That is kind of an interesting train of thought – thinking you know what you are doing and what you want when in fact you don’t. In my old age I can look back and realize that even though we all think we are well into responsible adulthood by the time we are in our early-to-mid-20s, it feels like we as people were still so unformed and stumbling around when we were 23, 24… which makes it seem all the more shocking to me that people make big life decisions that involve other people (such as marrying and having children) when they are so young themselves. Not that it is wrong by any means – it just seems that life’s wants and needs change so much even between the ages of 22 and 25 and between 25 and 30.
I got the feeling from Sue Crystal’s lectures and her life that she followed a path that she had not intended either. She once mentioned being a Jewish girl from Chicago who became a lawyer. Would she have imagined that her future included marrying a man who fought his entire life for Native American fishing treaty rights in the Pacific Northwest? No, she had not imagined that – but that is exactly where her life took her.
I think a lot about how we blame people for things they said or did in youth – for example, Monica Lewinsky has popped up in the news again lately… and while I don’t know her at all, I can imagine that in her own insecure youth (I have known people whose attention-seeking behavior and need to be noticed led them into situations that were too much to handle and far bigger than they were) she just wanted to feel important, noticed, special and entered into this ill-advised affair with the President of the United States. While Lewinsky has been out of the public eye for a long time, she has never left the public consciousness – and the way she is used as a symbol shifts depending on who is doing the using and why. How is a Republican opponent bringing up at this point how “Lewinsky was used and abused” by Clinton any different from how anyone else has used her, her name and her experience for their own ends? I have no doubt that Lewinsky thought and still thinks that her actions were consensual and were exactly what she wanted. But would they have been what she wanted if she could have foreseen what those actions would lead to – how she would drag their aftermath around with her for the rest of her life?
My point, though, really, is that she was in her early 20s… and even though that is not an excuse, I can look at it and think, “I did a lot of really stupid, regrettable things when I was in my early 20s – asserting that I really thought I was an adult – asserting my ability to make completely independent decisions” – all things that I cringe about now and realize that no actual, grounded adult would do.
We’re developing throughout our lives – and people in their early 20s may in fact be among the most dangerous and vulnerable (particularly to themselves). They are on their own and expected to behave like responsible adults – but are without much guidance or supervision for perhaps the first time in their lives. And when a poor decision is made, it’s said, “S/he should have known better.” But in fact – should they have known better? What previous experience would have prompted them to know better? Sure, maybe it is logical that having sexual relations with a sitting US president is a bad idea, full stop, but what young woman in that situation would do the logical thing – particularly (if I may generalize wildly) the type of attention-seeking woman I perceive Lewinsky to have been?
I digress – all I wanted to say is that sometimes life leads us to places we never imagined.