Documentarian Says 'Anarchist Cookbook' Author Was Filled With Remorse
If you've been around long enough, you've probably seen The Anarchist Cookbook: It has a black cover, blocky white letters and instructions for making your own explosives. The book was published in the early 1970s with this warning: "Read this book, but keep in mind that the topics written about here are illegal and constitutes a threat. Also, more importantly, almost all the recipes are dangerous, especially to the individual who plays around with them without knowing what he is doing. Use care, caution, and common sense. This book is not for children or morons."
William Powell was 19 when he wrote those words, during the height of the Vietnam War protests. Since then, The Anarchist Cookbook has sold more than 2 million copies. It has also been linked to the Columbine shooting and the Oklahoma City bombing, as well as other acts of violence.
Over the decades, Powell didn't talk much about the book. He died in July 2016, but his obituary only ran recently in a number of papers; The New York Times said his family hadn't thought to notify the media before.
Now, a new documentary has increased curiosity around Powell's life. It's called American Anarchist and it's the work of filmmaker Charlie Siskel. Siskel says he knew about the book when he was growing up. "It was notorious. It was the kind of thing that kids in the suburbs had to get their parents angry." He says knowing about the book's legacy got him thinking about its author — so he tracked Powell down. American Anarchist, which was filmed before Powell's death, is a dialogue between the author and filmmaker.
On how Siskel convinced Powell to talk to him
I just tracked him down and I talked to him about what interested me about his story: the parallels between his story of writing this book at age 19 and, you know, creating a kind of Frankenstein's monster — something that he was unable to control after creating it — because the book, I imagined, haunted him throughout his life. ... Often there are stories of, you know, kids these days writing things online that they come to regret, but can't take back. So I saw parallels between Bill's story, which was kind of a pre-Internet test case of this phenomenon, and this Internet phenomenon of people being publicly disgraced for things that they do at a very young age.
On the source of Powell's anger when he was 19
Bill was an angry young man, and with reason. I think Bill — like a number of kids who have gone on to commit acts of violence, usually males — was sort of let down by the adult world. There were people who could have been role models, teachers for example, who were abusive toward Bill, and he was bullied as a kid. All of this is not to excuse what happened in writing the book; as it, I think, doesn't excuse the acts of violence that young people who are taken advantage of or hurt go on to commit. But it does do something to explain how they got there.
On what Powell did with his life after writing the book
I would say, you know, Bill sort of redeemed himself. He went to college and then became a teacher. He himself started working with kids who had emotional problems, kids who suffered from ADD and ADHD, and he worked in schools around the world. He traveled the world and really became an expert, a leading expert, in the field of work with kids with emotional needs. But he did it outside the United States, and I think part of it has to do with the fact that the book dogged him and kind of followed him throughout his adult life.
On how Powell felt about the book being linked to acts of violence
I know that when he learned about the associations between the book and acts of violence, I think it affected him deeply. It, as he says, filled him with remorse, although he distinguishes between remorse and regret. On some level I think he doesn't regret having written the book because it sort of came to define who he was and I think he grew from it. I think he learned a lot from the experience. But I think it saddens him to know that the book was associated with acts of violence.
But I also think it's important to say that while the book has been connected to some of these acts of violence and it has been influential for the people who read it, I don't think it is responsible in any kind of legal sense or causal sense. ... The information that is in the book is now out on the Internet and in many other places, and was even at the time. I mean, Bill himself got it from the public library, so it was out there in other forms and I think people who were determined to act out violently probably would have found that information or found ways to do it in any case. ... So drawing sort of a direct, causal link I think is problematic. But my sense is that none of that has been any great consolation for Bill throughout his life. ...
I think Bill has for many years wrestled with ... feeling on the one hand that you deserve redemption, that you deserve a second chance, and on the other hand feeling that you have done something wrong and that you feel a sense of guilt over. And clearly I think Bill is a complex enough person to hold on to both of those emotions at once.
Editor Courtney Dorning, producer Fatma Tanis and digital producer Nicole Cohen contributed to this story.
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