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Thursday, August 13, 2020

In Search of Elusive Peace


When a mob of unidentified mercenaries were recently unleashed on the citizens of Portland, Ore., it was reminiscent of the anti-war clashes during the Vietnam War era. Then as now, with many employing strong-arm tactics, military and law enforcement combatants attacked and arrested scores of peaceful unarmed protesters.

Amid the chaos of these demonstrations back in the day, a 17 year-old girl was photographed handing a chrysanthemum to a soldier with a menacing bayonet affixed to his rifle during a tense scene outside the Pentagon in 1967. This iconic photo taken by Marc Riboud was of Janrose Kasmir, and this image along with others became symbols of the burgeoning peace movement during the Vietnam War.

In a remarkably candid autobiography, The Girl With The Flower: The Journey is the Trip, Kasmir reveals details about her life that most people would be loathe to share especially in a published work. With graphic and sometimes raw details, Kasmir opens up about her personal struggles that have consumed much of her existence and her late-in-life determination to put those demons to rest.

The book cover and title might suggest that this monumental photograph is the centerpiece of her journey.  Yet, the book is less about the peace movement during that tumultuous period than Kasmir’s seemingly futile search to find her own inner peace.  Nonetheless, her story includes her clear opposition to our involvement in Vietnam and her joining the hippie movement to express her views.

Kasmir was inspired by then leader of the Black Panther Party, Eldridge Cleaver, whom she regarded as a hero. Quoting him, “You either have to be part of the solution, or you’re going to be part of the problem.” She declared that this sentiment has guided her since the 1960s.

While that aspect of her life is not the dominant feature of the book, because of the historic significance of that famous photograph, I have included an excerpt in which Kasmir describes the event at the conclusion of this review.

The struggles of young Janrose Kasmir took off after the tragic and unexpected death of her sister and the eventual disintegration of her family. From her middle-class Jewish upbringing in Silver Spring, Md., a suburb of Washington, D.C.,  Kasmir fought and lost many of her battles. She plunged into depression and drug addiction as well as multiple suicide attempts. Her behavior became more challenging and unacceptable to the adults in her life. She let them down, they let her down. As she put it, her “life was a fucked-up mess.”

Rebellious to the core, Janrose ran away from home on a number of occasions. She was sent to psychiatric institutions and then was in and out of foster families, which rarely worked out for her. Kasmir engaged in a considerable amount of sexual activity that led in some cases to more drug abuse and heroin addiction. She was hardly satisfied romantically adding more to her loneliness and despair. Ultimately, her lack of self-esteem brought on bulimia that plagued her for years.

While the reader will instinctively root for her as her life is peeled back through intensely dark episodes, Kasmir made a number of poor choices along her journey. In one case, she agreed to be blindfolded by two drug pushers in Washington, D.C. and was led on foot to their rooming house. There she was repeatedly raped, which understandably made her terrified of and adverse to male sexual aggression forever.  

In another instance, at the age of 25 Kasmir married a man she had first met at a bar because she
The author with daughter Lisa.
 Photo courtesy of Janrose Kasmir
believed she was supposed to get married at that point in her life. She didn’t love him, and on her honeymoon at a ski lodge in Quebec, not only did she avoid consummating the marriage during the honeymoon, but she cheated on her husband with two different guys.

When you think that Kasmir may have turned a corner, you’re hit with another gut punch adding another layer to the struggle.

So gripping is this extraordinary journey that the book is a fast read. Kasmir relates these episodes in a well-written matter-of-fact style, often sprinkled with salty language, which allows the reader to feel the pain and suffering she had to endure, some of it self-inflicted.

She follows a guiding principle of good writing: write as if you are speaking to the audience, and she speaks it loud and clear.  Her recollection of details appears authentic, and when she couldn’t remember specific things, she admits it, adding to her credibility.

The vast majority of the book is devoted to her journey as a young person. Her later years are covered by the final few chapters when her career as a massage therapist, her settling in at Hilton Head, S.C. and the birth and raising of her daughter Lisa as a single mom. Such ferocious turmoil through those early years has led to a more tranquil and stable existence.

The Girl With The Flower is an excellent chronicle of a person dealing with a turbulent life during turbulent times.  The flower young Janrose handed to that National Guardsman outside the Pentagon represented the calm before the storm that followed.
____________

Behind the Photograph

Janrose Kasmir: While I was holding the flower and looking at the soldiers, focusing on their young faces, in an instant it dawned on me. The rhetoric of the war machine and the baby killers completely melted away and suddenly I realized that these soldiers were just young boys. They could’ve been my brother, my cousin, my date. Sorrow swept right through me and I started to pity them. I held out the chrysanthemum in front of me. I held it with both hands, almost like a gesture of prayer. I became so very, very sad. These boys were just as much victims of this whole mess as anyone else. I became one with the soldiers. It was a moment of simpatico. At that very moment Marc Riboud’s camera clicked and I became a part of history. It was 21 October 1967.

That shot was the last shot of the last roll of film with the last light of the day and then it was all over as darkness rolled in and we all drifted away.

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The Girl With The Flower: The Journey is the Trip; Janrose Kasmir; Fortis Publishing; 2020; Paperback; 271 pages; $12.50 (Amazon); also available on Kindle ($8.99).



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