Mayer Vishner may be the most important 1960s radical that you’ve never heard of. His story, beginning at the center of the optimistic Yippie movement but ending in a life of increasing isolation, is one that you should know.
Mayer was born to a comfortably middle class family in the Bronx just after the end of WWII. It was a time of great hope and prosperity in America, but Mayer wasn’t born for comfortable 1950s triumphalism: his decade was the revolutionary 1960s.
It didn’t take long for Mayer to find his place in the heart of the 60s counterculture: In 1965, at the age of 16, Mayer took a bus down to Washington, DC to join his first political protest against the war. He soon began volunteering at the War Resisters League, organizing anti-draft protests and counseling young men about their options in evading the draft. He wrote articles about the movement for WIN, the magazine of the New York Workshop in Non Violence. Mayer found many mentors in the peace community including Dave Dellinger, David McReynolds, Grace Paley and Norma Becker.
Though Mayer suffered from what would now be diagnosed as clinical depression, the strong ties to the community of activists of which he was a part gave his life focus and meaning. These ties -- to 1960s luminaries like Ed Sanders and Paul Krassner -- put him near the epicenter of many of the events that came to symbolize the era.
Mayer became a core member of the newly formed Youth International Party (The Yippies), that had been founded by Krassner along with Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Jim Fouratt and others. Their plan was to shift the momentum of the hippie movement toward the political goals of ending the war and fundamentally changing society. They were known for using humor, sarcasm, and street theater as tools to question authority -- grabbing the attention of the press and the imagination of the youth culture.
By 1971, the Pentagon Papers were published in The New York Times and the tide of public opinion had shifted against the war, and the movement that had been the focus of Mayer’s life began to splinter. Abbie Hoffman was arrested on charges of selling cocaine in 1973 and went underground to avoid arrest. Mayer became the chairman of his defense committee.
By this time, the dreams of the 1960s were frayed and many lost hope - leaving the revolution for straight jobs, “selling out.” But not Mayer: he worked socially-minded jobs, and continued protesting causes from nuclear weapons proliferation to the Rockefeller drug laws.
In the mid-1980s, Mayer was flown out west by his old friend Jay Levin, the publisher of the LA Weekly, to become managing editor and help turn the paper around. By all accounts, Mayer’s two years there were largely successful -- but he also began drinking heavily and was fired. Not long after, he returned to his native New York City, where he held various jobs. Alcohol and drugs continued to be a struggle for him. He also became involved in the sustainable food movement, becoming an original founder of the Laguargia Corner Gardens, where he would eventually meet Justin Schein and participate in the feature documentary No Impact Man.
Every 40 seconds a person dies by suicide somewhere in the world. It is estimated that over 800,000 people take their own lives annually and for each adult who died of suicide there may have been more than 20 others attempting.* In middle aged men, the age group of Mayer Vishner (the subject of LEFT ON PURPOSE) the suicide rate has increased by 50% in the last decade in the United States. It is our hope that this film will help start a discussion about this pressing issue.
If you are thinking about suicide please seek help:
National Suicide Prevention Hotline
Suicide is a tragedy that is never simple and straightforward. For Mayer, I believe there were a number of factors that came together to make ending his life a viable option. Perhaps the most operative factor was his life long depression. As a young man he persevered through the difficult times, aided by a close working relationship with his psychiatrist and the support of the community he found in the anti-war movement. By the mid 1970s, the war ended and Mayer’s therapist died in a car accident, leaving him without the support system on which he had so depended. Unmoored, Mayer began to rely more on self medicating through drugs and alcohol; providing temporary “anesthesia,” but leading to a cycle of depression and dependence that lasted until his death.
Psychologists have long regarded suicide as being contagious — that is, it is a behavior which is prone to being copied or imitated. Quite a few people in Mayer’s life made the tragic decision to end their own lives. In the late 1970s Mayer’s friend and legendary troubadour of the ant war movement, Phil Ochs, succumbed to his mental illness and alcohol addition. More impactful in Mayer’s trajectory perhaps was the well known photo taken in 1971 of young Mayer sitting between Yippie founder Abbie Hoffman and High Times Magazine founder Tom Forcade. Mayer referred to that photo as "two suicides and a procrastinator", as both Forcade and Mayer’s close friend and mentor Hoffman took their lives. Hoffman’s first wife, as well as his daughter— both of whom Mayer knew well, also killed themselves. I believe that the suicide of these people so close to made this decision a real possibility for him.
Similarly I believe that Mayer’s politics, while not the cause of his decision to end his life, were clearly a contributing factor. As stated in Left on Purpose, Mayer looked at everything from a political perspective. Mayer defined himself through his free thinking and his rebelliousness. (There was a time when the Hippies in San Francisco tried to “rebrand” themselves as “freemen”). The fact that suicide is a taboo of church and state no doubt made it more than a personal act for Mayer and turned to into a statement.
Lastly, Mayer also felt an increasing sense of isolation in this age of ever advancing technology. Thought he did still have friends who cared about him deeply, he felt unequipped to be part of the changing social justice movement that had previously so defined his life but that now relied on digital communication. Mayer prided himself on being an organizer. Greenwich Village was just that— a community of people who met in the park, at the bars, clubs and churches. As the age of email and Twitter advanced Mayer felt more and more disconnected.