William Powell (JP Laffont / Sygma / Corbis)
In Harper’s there’s an interesting story about William Powell, who in 1971 at age 19, “published The Anarchist Cookbook, a guide to making bombs and drugs at home. He spent the next four decades fighting to take it out of print.” (H/T: Micah Mattix)
The Anarchist Cookbook included sections such as “Converting a shotgun into a grenade launcher” and “How to make TNT.” The book’s message wasn’t subtle. In the forward, Powell expressed “a sincere hope that it may stir some stagnant brain cells into action.” The final sentence reads: “Freedom is based on respect, and respect must be earned by the spilling of blood.” When it was published, in January 1971, Powell was young and angry in a country where the young and angry had started to blow things up. But by the time the bomb detonated in the Bronx—marking the first of many connections between the book and real-world carnage—Powell had become a father and converted to Christianity and was having reservations about what promised to be his life’s most enduring legacy.
Powell is now a sixty-five-year-old grandfather. He still speaks with a slight English accent from a young childhood spent in London and has the professorial habit, before answering a question, of raising his eyeglasses to his forehead and pausing a beat to think. In 1979, he left the United States and has made his home in outposts throughout the world: Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Jakarta, Indonesia; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He has become a respected leader within the field of international schooling, heading several schools before launching an organization called Education Across Frontiers, which seeks to support international students with special needs. A recent book of Powell’s is entitled Becoming an Emotionally Intelligent Teacher. Much of his work has been funded by the U.S. Department of State.
More about his infamous book:
Despite the title, there is nothing about anarchism as a political theory in the book, which focuses on drugs, surveillance, weapons, and explosives. About drugs, Powell knew plenty. He had overcome a speed habit, smoked lots of pot, consumed his fair share of LSD, and seen lives destroyed by heroin. What he didn’t know he borrowed from underground publications like the Berkeley Barb, passing on tips that hadn’t been fact-checked. As it turns out, one cannot get high by eating banana peels that have been boiled and baked, or smoking crushed peanut shells. (Powell was right, however, about nutmeg’s hallucinogenic potential.) Nor had the city’s sewer system been taken over by “New York white,” the giant marijuana plants said to be the result of people flushing seeds to avoid arrest. “The sewer plants usually reach a height of between 12 and 15 feet and are bleached white because of the lack of sunlight,” Powell wrote, in the authoritative voice that permeates the book.
He researched the other sections at the main branch of the New York Public Library, flipping through the card catalogue and returning with books such as the U.S. Army Field Manual for Physical Safety and Homemade Bombs and Explosives. He holed up in the building for months, reading about wristlocks and tear gas and nitroglycerine. Most of the book is a cut-and-paste creation; when Powell’s voice does emerge beneath the technical-manual speak, it’s usually in the form of a cocky young man trying to sound streetwise beyond his years. About explosives, he wrote: “This chapter is going to kill and maim more people than all the rest put together, because people just refuse to take things seriously.”
After being published, things began to change:
As Powell weathered a media storm, an FBI investigation, and a number of threatening letters in his mailbox (“Dear Anti-Christ,” one began), he started to have second thoughts. “There wasn’t a seminal moment, like Paul on the road to Damascus, when a blinding light came down,” he says about his change of heart. “But the publicity surrounding the book spurred me to try and think it through again, to try and justify it. And I came up short.”
Powell would go on to become a totally different person, graduating from college, working with emotionally disturbed kids, settling down to a stable home life with a wife and children. By 2000, he requested that Amazon add an author’s note to Anarchist, which never stopped selling. It says:
In 1976 I became a confirmed Anglican Christian and shortly thereafter I wrote to Lyle Stuart Inc. explaining that I no longer held the views that were expressed in the book and requested that The Anarchist Cookbook be taken out of print. The response from the publisher was that the copyright was in his name and therefore such a decision was his to make – not the author’s. In the early 1980′s [sic], the rights for the book were sold to another publisher. I have had no contact with that publisher (other than to request that the book be taken out of print) and I receive no royalties. . . . I consider it to be a misguided and potentially dangerous publication, which should be taken out of print.
From an angry and disillusioned youth to a man dedicated to working with some of the hardest cases in schools around the globe. God can move mountains… and hearts.
Reflection for the day: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. 18 Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ… ” II Corinthians 5:17-18