David Rieff Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Humanitarianism, the Human Rights Movement, and U.S. Foreign Policy: Conversation with David Rieff, author; March 11, 2003 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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David, welcome back to Berkeley.

It's always nice to be back in Berkeley.

Where were you born and raised?

I grew up in New York, for all practical purposes. But I was born in Boston and spent two years in California between [ages] four and six, including a bit of time here in Berkeley. I went to the first half of first grade here.

Well then, now we understand the trajectory of your life.

I'm glad you do!

So how in retrospect do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?

Everyone complains about having parents in the same activity they are in, and there's a lot anguish expressed by the sons and daughters of famous people. I must say, I don't see it myself. My mother is a well-known writer. My father is a well-known academic. I think it's made life a lot easier for me. As a writer, I understood from an early age what the mechanics, what the artisanship of writing was. It was neither something that was awe inspiring, nor was it something that I had any romance about. It was ... well, it was the family "olive oil" business. So I felt quite privileged in that sense.

Intellectually speaking, I had a perfectly reasonable childhood; nothing to complain about beyond the usual. From an early age, one was expected to be able to defend one's views --if one had an opinion, to be able to back it up, a kind of intellectual forcing house, which probably joined my parents, who don't agree on very much politically or even intellectually. From my point of view, that was a plus as well.

I would assume that being a cosmopolitan, being somebody whose perspective was open to the world, was something that came very early, maybe with the blood?

Well, yes. I did grow up in New York, in a world of exiles. My mother was very close to a lot of Cuban exiles -- first from Bautista to the end of the fifties; and then shortly thereafter, others (and in many cases, the same people) from Fidel Castro. People who had gone back, thought they were going to support the revolution, but then were quite horrified and disenchanted by it. And of course, I grew up to a very large extent in a world of German-Jewish exiles and immigrants. My godfather was one of the founders of Brandeis University, a man called Nahum Glazer, who had been Franz Rosenzweig's secretary and who lived in that world. Herbert Marcuse, when I was a small child, lived in our attic in Cambridge, Massachusetts. So it was a cosmopolitan world. I went to French schools for most of my elementary school education. I went to the Lycée in New York. That, too, gave one a somewhat complicated view of nationality in the world; I was already functioning effectively in two languages.

Were there any intellectual mentors, other than your parents or the people you've already named? I believe you went to Princeton as an undergraduate. There or in your earlier schools?

I don't know that [there were], intellectually. I had a lot of good teachers at Princeton. I was a very indifferent student. I didn't like school much. I liked to travel and I liked to sort of mooch around. I thought, maybe arrogantly, that I could get most of what I needed on my own. Although there were excellent people at Princeton, notably a man called Robert Darnton [in] History.

But as far as intellectual models go, I think probably the deepest intellectual model or mentor, maybe more than model, was a man called Ivan Illich, who was a radical priest, originally Yugoslavian, who spent his career in Latin America. I dropped out of Amherst College at nineteen to go work for Illich, and was his secretary on the first draft of the Medical Nemesis book. That world of radical Catholic thinking was an early model. I'm not a believer in any sense; in fact, I'm a sort of a militant atheist. But if there was an intellectual matrix that was incredibly helpful to me -- I mean, not from reading, but from actually knowing the people -- it was probably Illich and these radical Catholics around him, European and Latin American.

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