To Have Not: Involuntary-Voluntary Poverty in Frances Lefkowitz’s Memoir

Reviewed by Eireene Nealand

Frances Lefkowitz’s memoir, To Have Not is written in what is fast becoming a genre: the recounting of a childhood affected by the lifestyle experiments of the 1970’s. Many very good memoirs have been written about these times. Usually, however, they highlight the romantic nature of the 1970’s experiments, especially those connected with voluntary poverty, a turn away from money-making and consumerism that was popular at the time. And, of course, they do; the social and political results of these experiments are much more exciting to talk about than the mundane poverty that so obviously follows from giving up one’s attachments to money and things. Lefkowitz’s memoir is important because it willing to baldly discuss such a result. As she bravely writes in her introduction, “I have nothing to say about the politics of poverty, what causes it and…and how to make it go away. I can only tell you what poverty does to a person…It gets inside you…becomes you…shapes what you see and taste and dream…you must say no to yourself constantly.”

In drawing upon the involuntary nature of children’s participation in the movement, she points out the fact that many lifestyle experimenters were able to be “excited by art and literature and…peace and justice,” and unimpressed with money, precisely because they came from commodity-loving middle-class or wealthy families. While their children were meant to be free of the taints of such an upbringing, as Lefkowitz points out, however, once money – and the habits of attending to it -- have been lost, it’s lost. The children of the ‘hippies,’ or nearly-not-quite hippies, as Lefkowitz calls herself, were never quite so freedom-loving or idealistic or revolutionary as their parents precisely because they never had the privileges that would allow them to be so.

Paradoxically, however, this also means that they are, perhaps, more authentically able to sympathize with those whom their starry-eyed parents claimed to support. Indeed, Lefkowitz writes of what all of us who have not chosen poverty know quite well. “Poverty is not only a lack of money,” she writes. “It can also be a lack of love or choice, pleasure or safety, faith or confidence or possibility. It seeps into your cells and makes you believe you are not entitled to have the things that other people have; you are not even allowed to want them, except sometimes in your dreams.” While such knowledge is not glamorous, it’s important to have someone like Lefkowitz talk about poverty without the ‘poverty chic’ that occludes its actual unpleasantness.