American Anarchist

William Powell, author of The Anarchist Cookbook, died this past July at age 66. Published at the height of the counterculture movement in 1971, the book is a how-to guide for manufacturing bombs, weapons, and LSD, a subversive method of advocacy for a violent overthrow of the U.S. government. Powell and The Anarchist Cookbook are thoroughly examined in filmmaker Charlie Siskel’s latest documentary, American Anarchist, which screens as part of the Chicago International Film Festival this weekend.

Siskel  (Finding Vivian Maier), nephew of the late film critic Gene Siskel, traveled to Powell’s home in Massat, France, last year for a week of sit-down interviews. Their conversations cover the breadth of Powell’s life and career, from his unstable childhood, to his experience writing the book as a 19-year-old yippie in New York City, to his move overseas after the book’s publication to work internationally as an educator for special-needs children. 

I recently spoke to Siskel about the filming of American Anarchist, the themes therein, and the documentary’s complicated, though ultimately sympathetic, subject. 

Leah Pickett: When did you first read or hear of The Anarchist Cookbook?

Charlie Siskel: I first heard about it when I was pretty young. I remember that an older cousin had [the book] on his shelf. It must have been in the late 70s or early 80s. This cousin was ten years older than me. I never read it; he certainly never read it. My cousin and I grew up in the suburbs, and I think it was the kind of thing that kids had on their shelves to rebel or act out against their parents. It was kind of a badge of honor. So I was aware of it more as a book that had a cult status, and certainly not something that people would use in any way.

When did you decide that you wanted to make a documentary about the book and the book’s author?

It’s a period that I’ve been interested in for a long time: the late 60s, early 70s. It was a time when anger over the war in Vietnam and the crackdown on civil liberties by the government turned peaceful, ordinary protests into violent clashes, and when certain people on the left grew impatient with normal civil disobedience and started to promote violence. And Bill Powell interested me, partly because he wasn’t a joiner. He wasn’t a member of the Weather Underground, the Students for Democratic Society, or any of the familiar leftist groups of the period. He had a kind of lone-wolf status.

At some point there were some articles about the book. There was an article in Newsweek about the 40th anniversary of the book. And I always wondered, “Whatever happened to the guy who wrote the book?” I started to think it would be interesting to talk to him. And then I saw, in doing a little research, that Bill had written these statements—the one on Amazon, the one in the Guardian—and I thought, “Wow, this must be something that has haunted him.”

I reached out to him, and I was pretty up-front with him. I was curious to know what it was like to live with something that you did at the age of 19, and I imagined that it must have haunted him. He seemed like a very thoughtful, introspective person in these statements that he wrote—but it seemed like there was more to it, more to tell. I even mentioned to him when we first spoke that I thought there were parallels to this book by Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

Oh, I love that book.

I love that book too. I’d been talking to Jon about it, and thinking about doing a documentary version of that phenomenon. And I told Bill that his story was a pre-Internet version of that phenomenon: of doing something when you’re young that you’ve come to regret, yet it’s something you can’t erase, because it’s a part of your past. So I talked to Bill about some of those themes, and asked if he was willing to be interviewed. Thankfully, he was willing to sit down for what turned into about a week of interviewing, and the film shows that we also followed him on some of his travels.

In the film, I think Bill was a willing participant—obviously, he agreed to do it—but he was a reluctant witness at times. He had to be pushed in order to confront some of the wrinkles in his story. The story that he’d basically been telling himself was that it was enough to issue a couple of public statements, and that was the end of it. I think that story unraveled for him over the course of the interviews.

<i>American Anarchist</i>
American Anarchist

Bill also mentions in the film that he turned down many requests for interviews over the years. Why do you think he agreed to be interviewed by you? 

I think part of it was that he was ready to talk, and part of it was the timing. Bill had written a number of books after The Anarchist Cookbook and they were all works of historical fiction. At the time, he was working on a memoir and trying to tell his life story. He sent me a copy of it, and I was struck that even in his memoir, with The Anarchist Cookbook in the subtitle—where he was presumably trying to come clean, address the book, or reveal his feelings about it—there was so little about the book, and so little specifically about the role that the book played in his life after writing it: the effect that it had on his family or the effect that it had on the world, how he dealt with the fact that the book had associations with notorious acts of violence [the Columbine High School massacre, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the Aurora movie theater shooting, to name a few]. It really skirted all of that stuff.

So my instinct when I went to interview him was that on one hand he wanted to talk, and yet he was unwilling on some level to do it. Even when he didn’t have someone asking the questions, when it was just him writing his story, he was very reluctant to go there.

Another part of it was that he asked if I could send him a copy of Finding Vivian Maier, which I did, and he really enjoyed it. He said that he thought the film was a fair and respectful treatment of her, even though it wasn’t an airbrushed version of her story.

Though he wasn’t entirely forthcoming at times, I could see Bill considering what you were saying when you were challenging him. Was Bill aware that the FBI kept an investigative file on him? And did you expect him to be more paranoid about this fact, or perhaps more disturbed by the book’s effect?

I think he was in some denial and compartmentalizing—to use psychologist’s terms, which I hate to do—but to me, that’s a very human response. People don’t tend to dwell on things about themselves or their past that are unflattering or that you have regrets or remorse about. We tend to airbrush out the ugly chapters of our lives or things we weren’t proud of so we can sleep at night. I think we all do that, and so I could empathize with Bill. Throughout the process of interviewing him, and certainly in looking at the footage and putting the film together, I wanted that to come across, because I do have great empathy for him. It was not for me to assess blame, or for the audience to necessarily assess blame.

The film talks a lot about responsibility, and Bill, as he articulates, he did feel responsible for the book and the effect that it has had out in the world. But I was as interested in the effect that the book had on Bill and his life, and whether or not he had come to terms with that. I wanted to know the effect that it had on his family, the effect that it had on his career—that he nearly lost his career, that he kind of lived a life of exile after writing the book—and the effect that it had on his marriage. It was clear that his wife wanted to return to the United States on some level, and that Bill couldn’t bring himself to do that. That interested me more than if you could prosecute a case against him in a legal sense.

To get back to your question about the FBI, I did have his entire FBI file with me. We filmed a whole sequence where we went through it pretty exhaustively. He had not read the FBI file, even though it had been made publicly available since 2010—he was the subject of an investigation, as you say, and there were numerous letters from the public, as well as from members of Congress, the FBI, and the Justice Department, which investigated possibly banning the book. I was tempted to include some of that sequence, but ultimately it didn’t work for the way that the film was structured.

He’s exonerated, in a sense, because there’s a memo in the file from the Justice Department that basically says, “We cannot ban this book. It doesn’t violate any laws that we can use to prosecute him or to justify banning the book.” I asked Bill if that was any consolation to him and he said no—I think because it’s not about responsibility in a legal sense, but in a causal sense. He does feel responsible; he does feel remorse that even his name is associated with these horrible acts of violence. And that was my instinct all along. Like the people in Jon Ronson’s book, I could imagine Bill waiting for another article to be written that mentions his name or the book in connection to another story of violence, and I could picture him being tormented by that.

Even so, Bill made several cogent points, one of which being that if the government knows how to make bombs, then the common people should have access to the same information. But what struck me most is what Bill chose to do with his life in the aftermath. When we talk about violence—the increase in school shootings in this country, and mass shootings in general—almost all of the violence is perpetrated by young men. One could make the argument that banning the book or censoring it wouldn’t fix the underlying problem, and that these troubled young men would have found other ways to make bombs. What I think the documentary implies is that Bill has devoted his life to fixing the underlying problem, in working with troubled children, many of them boys, who remind him of himself. Did you see it that way?

Absolutely. As he says, “I dedicated my life to working with kids with special needs.” And while he says that it doesn’t right the wrongs of writing The Anarchist Cookbook, it’s not as if he’s done nothing. Of course, Bill wouldn’t be an interesting character, or a character deserving of our empathy, if he had waltzed through life not caring. He wouldn’t be the sympathetic human being that I think he is. If he was defiantly relying on a First Amendment-type, “all information should be free,” Edward Snowden-like defense—”If the government has this information, why shouldn’t everyone?”—and if that was the entirety of Bill’s position, I don’t think I would have been interested in making a film about him. That he was thoughtful and reflective and articulate about [his decision-making], that’s what made him compelling to me.

Like the people in Jon Ronson’s book, it’s often easier to tell yourself, “I don’t deserve what’s happening to me. This is wrong. This is unfair.” And of course, there is unfairness to Bill’s story. He wrote The Anarchist Cookbook at 19. He was a kid. But of course, that’s not the full story: to say he wrote the book at 19, and it set off a chain of events over which he had no control.

The fact is that he made choices along the way. He continued to receive money from the book. When it came time to defend the book, his name, and the fact that he wrote it and didn’t steal it from the work of others, he hired a lawyer, went to court, and defended it. His publisher, Lyle Stuart, said he would stop publishing the book if Bill didn’t sign away all the rights to it—and Bill made the choice to sign away his rights and get $10,000 from it. He could have made a different choice. He could have consulted a lawyer and said, “Is this an opportunity for me to stop the publishing of the book? This is in the middle of a bankruptcy proceeding. . . . Is this a chance for me to stop all of this?” I’m not saying I would have acted differently, but I found it compelling to explore those choices and to hear Bill articulate them.

I imagine that Bill had a lot of arguments within himself throughout his life. Like, “this information was out there, other people would have found it anyway.” Or in the legal world, “I’m not the proximate cause of this violence.” Or that “We can’t say none of the violence would have happened, had it not been for the book, because [the perpetrators] would have found other ways to do it.” All of that is true, and none of it, I think, allows Bill to truly put the book behind him. But to tell oneself these things, that’s the difference between a human being and a monster. A human being wrestles with all of the complexities of the story, and that’s what makes Bill a compelling person. And as a filmmaker, I think you have to fall in love with your subject if you want to spend time telling their story.

There were a number of surprises along the way. I wasn’t expecting Bill to say, “The book doesn’t advocate the violent overthrow of the government.” That surprised me, that he would deny the core message of the book. Even when he made these public statements, saying, “I reject the book now, because I don’t think violence is the answer to violence.” That was the reason he wrote these statements for Amazon and the Guardian. And then we sit down for these interviews, and suddenly he was evasive and defensive. Again, it was a totally human reaction that I can understand; but given his statements, I was surprised by that. The conversation we had turned into a chess match that I wasn’t necessarily anticipating. I thought there might be some things he would be uncomfortable talking about—maybe the money, or the questions about whether he had taken enough steps to deal with the book and confront it, or if he could have done more—but there were many twists in that conversation that I hadn’t anticipated.

Charlie Siskel
Charlie SiskelCredit: IMDB

At the same time, his backstory, where all of his anger comes from, makes sense.

Yes. Going back to what you said about the young boys and the anger, I think Bill, as a young person, was let down in many ways by the adult world. That may be putting it lightly, given the abuse that he described. He was really betrayed by the adult world. And he describes the kind of isolation that it led to.

Do you see shades of anarchism in this political season? I certainly do, with the calls for political revolution and overthrow of the establishment seeming far louder and more popular than I remember from the past elections of my lifetime.

Absolutely. With Bernie Sanders calling for revolution and Donald Trump’s rallies having these violent clashes, and with the rhetoric, I certainly see the parallels. It feels like a very volatile time. I don’t know if we’ll see more of that. I imagine we will, as Trump’s supporters realize he’s not going to win. They are a huge minority; it seems like his supporters are not going to go below 35 or 40 percent [of the voting population]. Where will all of that anger go?

Part of what is so troubling about The Anarchist Cookbook is that it has this kind of libertarian ethos to it, and it’s susceptible to all of these different interpretations. It’s kind of a Rorschach phenomenon, in that different groups have interpreted it for their own ends. I think that’s why it appealed to people on the left during the 70s and people on the right, with the abortion-clinic bomber in the 80s, because it has this “us against them, individual against the government” mind-set. If the government doesn’t reflect your will, then you take matters into your own hands. That’s a way of thinking that can appeal to anyone who feels anger toward the system, and that makes it really potent and dangerous.

What I find most troubling about the book is not the rhetoric nor the recipes, but the combination of the two: the rhetoric paired with the recipes. I also think that’s why the book has had such a lasting and powerful impact, and why people keep returning to it.

I think that’s right. I absolutely agree.

It’s been interesting to see [American Anarchist] with audiences. It’s a different kind of story than Vivian’s story. With Finding Vivian Maier, it obviously felt like the viewer was discovering her along with the filmmakers. The very act of seeing the film was a way of helping to give Vivian her due, in some ways, and the viewer could champion her, root for her. It had a feel-good element in that way, and with this film I hope that people empathize and see the humanity in the story. It’s certainly provoking a lot of conversations among people who want to have the same kind of conversation that you and I have just had, about responsibility and blame and guilt and violence, all of those themes. I like it when people disagree about Bill. Some people like him more than others. Some people are on different parts of the spectrum, rooting for him or not. But that’s always my goal: to get people to have the conversation.

American Anarchist
Sat 10/15, 5:45 PM and Sun 10/16, 12:15 PM, AMC River East 21. Charlie Siskel and associate producer Abigail Deser are scheduled to attend both screenings. 

Correction: This post has been amended to reflect William Powell’s age at the time of his death.