Faust, the former president of Harvard University and the first woman to hold that position, traces her political awakening in her coming-of-age memoir, Necessary Trouble (FSG, Aug).
This book covers a lot of ground. How would you summarize it?
It’s about growing up as a girl in the 1950s in Virginia in a society that did not expect much of girls, and finding myself so frustrated and angry that I began to notice more profound injustices around me—of race, in particular. And that propelled me into questioning so much about the society in which I found myself, and writing a letter to President Eisenhower objecting to segregation when I was nine, and putting me on a path to becoming an activist in a variety of causes that ranged from racial issues to Vietnam, and ultimately, struggling to find my place as a woman and to advance women’s issues.
What would you say the key theme is?
It’s how I escaped Virginia. I mean that literally and metaphorically. It’s how I escaped that stifling society that had stifled my mother and my grandmother, and how I began to build a life through education, which was the way out of the very limited life that I was expected to lead.
Were there misconceptions about the 1960s that you hoped to dispel?
Part of what motivated me to write this book is that I feel that baby boomers are disparaged as having been self-indulgent, accomplishing nothing, and that the ’60s were disruptive with no positive outcome. I wanted to say, “You should know what it was like then, you should know what we were up against. You should know the changes we did make and the questions we raised that are still kind of unresolved.” It was an important time of transition, where many people were freed from certain kinds of expectations that had constrained women, African Americans, and gay people. It was the beginning of all of that change, which we now take for granted.
As you combed through your memories, did you find yourself surprised by anything?
There are a number of things that struck me as through lines in my life that I hadn’t identified before. For example, in college I put up photographs of Vietnamese children who had been wounded by napalm. Some of my classmates took them down and said, “These are too shocking.” I wrote this enraged letter to the college newspaper about what war and death meant. I read that letter, and I thought, this could almost have been a prospectus for a book I published in 2008, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. Seeing how ideas of my adolescence infused my work for decades afterwards, as a historian, as a human being—that was really striking.