Who's Minding Your Business?

A Think & Drink conversation with writer William T. Vollmann

Photos by Tim LaBarge

In the September 2013 Issue of Harper's magazine, William T. Vollmann wrote about his discovery, through a Freedom of Information Act request, that he had been a suspect in both the Unabomber and 2001 anthrax letter domestic terrorism investigations by the FBI. A prolific writer whose work includes war reporting, nonfiction books on poverty, train-hopping, and Japanese theater, and the National Book Award–winning novel Europe Central, Vollmann was the first guest in Oregon Humanities' 2014 Think & Drink Portland series on the theme “Private.” The following is an excerpt of his conversation with Executive Director Adam Davis on February 5 at the Mission Theater in Portland.

Early in the conversation, Vollmann said he was never arrested and he doesn't consider himself a victim. He also noted that some of the reasons the FBI suspected him of being the Unabomber were “sort of plausible. I could see that they might want to investigate me if they had no better person to investigate.” But, he said, officials were “ham-handed and incompetent” about other parts of the investigation and, even though the Unabomber was caught, Vollmann believes his telephone and postal correspondence still remain under surveillance. He received 294 redacted pages of a 785-page FBI file; at this writing, his requests for CIA files on him were rejected and an NSA request was still pending.

Adam Davis: The Harper's essay started with talk of Steinbeck [America and Americans] and then a category of people you refer to as “the Unamericans.” Let me just stop there and ask: What does “Unamerican” mean as a way of moving toward what “American” means? Who are these Unamericans that you talk about?

William T. Vollmann: Well, what does “American” mean to you? To me, “America” has very good and very bad connotations, as does any place, any country, any society. But when I think about the good things about being an American, I think about the freedom that we supposedly have to develop our own individuality and mind our own business and have other people mind their business.

Recently I published a book that had a bunch of portraits of myself in a dress. For several years, I was fooling around cross-dressing and having a great time. And I can't say I was ashamed of it. I had a lot of fun. At the same time, I wouldn't have liked it if people were looking in and taking pictures through the window and posting those on the Internet. Now of course they can do that. Now that the book [The Book of Dolores] is out they can do whatever they want.

But I had this feeling that I could figure out who I was. I could be what I wanted, and in a way that's not too different from a nineteenth-century settler coming into the Willamette Valley and saying, “I want to start growing pears, I want to have a farm, and I'm going to make anything that I can. I'm going to do it my way, and I can succeed or fail, but I have the right to do this.” To me, that's what being an American is. Taking chances, having homes that are safe from others where we can succeed or fail. And not having to do what we're told. Not having to be spied on and told that we have to do this or we have to do that. So the Unamericans are the people who are trying to defeat this sort of America, which has never completely existed and was built on the back of Indian genocide and African American slavery and all kinds of other things. But that doesn't mean that our Constitution and the ideas that we pay lip service to shouldn't somehow guide us and inspire us to become better and enlarge our own freedom and the freedom of others.

AD: I want to push on that a little bit with a sentence of yours from an earlier book in mind. The sentence is: “I believe in the American myth that it is both admirable and even possible to devote one's life to a private dream.” That seems to me to be a complicated sentence. And it's a little complicated to make sense of what you just said, in part because you're both pointing back to a time and acknowledging that that time didn't hold what you said it held. So I want to ask whether there's been what feels like a significant change to you, in terms of the way we're monitored, or whether it feels like this has been there all along.

WTV: I think that if my name were Mohammed, I would be feeling a lot more scared than I do now. And if I had been black in my father's time or my grandfather's time, I would have felt a lot of fear and anger. That's what I mean when I say that these ideals never have been fully realized and maybe never will be. And then I'd also say that as we get older, we tend to think of the world as becoming worse and worse. And so I bristle at the Internet and I think, how awful, and I'm just this old reactionary. It doesn't really matter what I think. It's irrelevant what I think about the Internet. And it's a great tool, et cetera, et cetera. That having been said, the government and these corporations, if they can even be separated, know far more about you than strangers have ever known about you in history. That is certain.

AD: I'm going to ask a naive question: That's a bad thing?

WTV: It wouldn't be a bad thing if you could have absolute confidence in the motives of the people who were doing the watching and using this information and knew how it was going to be used. But in fact, we're being told by the president, “Oh, yeah, there's some misunderstanding. Trust me, it's all gonna work out.” We don't know what's going to work out, or how it's going to work out. And we're being asked to resign our liberties. Again, there may be no problem for five years or fifty years. But all it takes is an unscrupulous president—and of course we've never had any of those—or some CEO who cares more about the bottom line than about what's good for his customers—we've certainly never had any of those either. So this information is bound to be misused, and it's probably being misused now. And we know that other people are minding our business. And I think that we should try to find out how they're minding our business and raise our voices if we don't like that they're doing it. Try to limit the ways that they can mind our business, if that's even possible. And if it isn't possible, then we should think about limiting our exposure. We don't have to eschew the Internet, but I'm sure all of you can think of more creative ways to pollute the data pool than I can. I urge you always to obfuscate and confuse the issue. Fill in the wrong blanks. It's only going to help. …

Photo by Tim LaBarge
Photo by Tim LaBarge

AD: Why are you sharing this [experience] with us? Why are you putting it out there—to say it again provocatively—in our business? Why put it out there?

WTV: I guess I feel that we're all limited, and I know I'm certainly very limited. I like to learn as much about the outside world as I can, the world outside my head. That's one of the reasons I like riding the freight trains. There's nothing like being on a rail car and looking up at the stars overnight as you're going through the mountains. You really feel the immensity of the world, and all the things that you might do someday. Which, of course, is something that you generally lose the next day. But it's a briefly inspiring feeling. And as I have tried to look at people unlike me—Al Qaeda types, street prostitutes, drug pushers, whatever—to enlarge my mind, I then decided I should come back to myself to see how I'm different and how I would approach myself as a third sort of person, to learn about myself. In the process of Dolores I actually found some of the photographs rather pathetic and cruel—when I was trying to look like a pretty woman, and I couldn't do it. I look at the pictures in there, and I mean—look at this person's face. This is my face. And I don't have to like what I see. But I just have to look at it and say, “This is my reality.” And if I do this with the rest of the world, I have to do it with myself, too, to be fair.

AD: I feel like in a strange way you've just made an argument that there's something useful about having someone else look at us in this more external way.

WTV: That's what readers are for. Everybody, from children onward, likes to be seen. And that's one of the ways in which we learn what we're capable of and what we're not. I would love to be able to drive a nail in straight, but because I don't have depth perception, I can't see in 3-D, I can't tell when a nail is perpendicular to the wall. So as a result of having tried for many, many years, and watching other people drive in nails really, really easily when I can't do it, I've learned something about reality.

AD: But that's what I mean: how great then to have huge government entities with files on you. 

WTV: That's right—if the files have useful things to say, and if the files are for your benefit.

AD: But I thought you were just making a case for the benefit of seeing yourself from outside yourself, from another perspective? So is the problem—I'm just trying to push on this—what they might do with it?

WTV: That's the main thing. But you're certainly right. It was gratifying and flattering in a certain way to see that they had so many pages about me. And, of course, I was curious about the content of hundreds of pages I'll never see. And it was a kind of lesson in how I might appear to others.

Next time you fly, think about your TSA experience. And the other TSA experiences that you've had. You might well get some very courteous, helpful person who gets you through as quickly as possible. Or, from time to time, you'll probably get a bully; my late father always used to say, “Give someone a little bit of power and they turn into a Nazi.” And then you might get people who just don't really know very much and are taking the job because that's the only job they can get. And they're all human beings. I'm not knocking any of them in particular. But the fact that some of them have power over us means that they might use the power in a sort of ignorant and, therefore, detrimental way. And imagine if those people then are writing information about you, or misinformation, whatever, and making use of that information. Putting you on a watch list, for instance, because they misspelled your name and they decided maybe you're a terrorist, or for some other reason. …

AD: So, five minutes ago you said you feel hopeful. What makes you hopeful?

WTV: Well, for one thing, [Chelsea] Manning and [Edward] Snowden are heroes—to me, anyway. So that NSA spook [James] Clapper got caught in one of his lies: “Oh no, we don't do this, we don't do that.” And maybe the paradigm will shift a little bit. And if all of us become more conscious about what we're going to accept and how we see the future, maybe lip service will be paid to what we wish for, and maybe someday it will be more than lip service—if we really care. But it's going to take a generation or more to undo what's been done. And so, I think it's possible, but only if enough people really care.

Think & Drink is a happy-hour series that sparks provocative conversations about big ideas. Visit our Think & Drink page to learn more about this program, to listen to audio from the conversation with William T. Vollmann, or to read the complete transcript.


America, Belonging, Civic Life, Civil Rights, Conversation, Government, Privacy, Think & Drink, Digital Culture, Media and Journalism


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What's Mine Is Yours

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Mark My Words

In Defense of Navel-Gazing

Trapped in the Spotlight

The Thing with Feathers

You Remind Me of Me