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Documentarian Says 'Anarchist Cookbook' Author Was Filled With Remorse

Apr 3, 2017
Originally published on April 4, 2017 3:13 pm

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.


Interview Highlights

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.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

If you've been around long enough, you have seen this book - black cover, blocky white letters, instructions for making your own explosives inside. "The Anarchist Cookbook" was first published 45 years ago. And it comes with this warning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAM POWELL: Keep in mind that the topics written about here are illegal and constitute a threat. Also, more importantly, almost all the recipes are dangerous. This book is not for children or morons.

MCEVERS: That's the man who wrote the cookbook, William Powell. He was 19 years old at the time. It was the height of protests against the Vietnam War. And since then, "The Anarchist Cookbook" has sold more than 2 million copies.

Now there's a new documentary about William Powell by filmmaker Charlie Siskel. And he spent a long time with Powell, asking him if he feels remorse about creating something that was later used by people to commit violence. Siskel stopped by the studio the other day, and I asked him how he first got interested in William Powell.

CHARLIE SISKEL: Well, I'd been familiar with the book...

MCEVERS: As so many people are, yes.

SISKEL: ...In the '70s and '80s growing up. And it was notorious. It was the kind of thing that kids in the suburbs had to get their parents angry. And I imagine none of the people who had it growing up that I knew had any plans to use it in any way. It was just sort of a - kind of a cult status thing. But the book was associated with the Columbine shootings and has been associated, sadly, with a number of school shootings and incidents.

So I was aware of the legacy of the book. And it got me wondering about the author. And so I started to do some research about him and saw that he had written a couple of public statements but had pretty much vanished. And so I was interested in trying to track him down and hear what he had to say.

MCEVERS: And so how did you first get in touch with him? And how did you convince him, Powell, to talk to you?

SISKEL: Well, I reached out to him. I just tracked him down. And I talked to him about what interested me about his story, the parallels between his story, 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.

MCEVERS: And what did you find out? I mean, who was the 19-year-old Bill Powell, the man who wrote this book?

SISKEL: Well, 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.

MCEVERS: And then he went on to do something very different with his life, didn't he? What did he go on to do?

SISKEL: He did. 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.

MCEVERS: A lot of the film, while telling his story, is also this dialogue between the two of you and going back and forth a lot about how he feels now. How - does he feel responsible? And there's this one exchange I want to play.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "AMERICAN ANARCHIST")

POWELL: There is a sense of while I do feel responsible, I didn't do it. Somebody else - somebody else with a perverted, distorted sense of reality did something awful.

MCEVERS: When he says I didn't do it, he means I didn't shoot people. I didn't take my own advice in this book and make explosives and I didn't kill people, right?

SISKEL: Exactly. And I think that's absolutely true. I think Bill has for many years wrestled with this, can relate to those emotions, to 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.

MCEVERS: Bill Powell actually died suddenly last summer. Is that right?

SISKEL: He did. He passed away before the film came out and about a year after we met.

MCEVERS: Do you think he died at peace?

SISKEL: That's a really hard question to answer. I think, you know, Bill was a lovely person. He led a wonderful life in his adulthood. He was doing what he loved to do. And I think he was happy and I suppose at peace. I don't think he ever fully reconciled the place that the book would play in his life and where it belonged. And I don't know that Bill ever resolved the conflicts in his own mind about the book. But I think writing his memoir and hopefully the film helped him to move a bit further along in that journey.

MCEVERS: Charlie Siskel, thank you so much.

SISKEL: Thank you.

MCEVERS: Charlie Siskel's new documentary is "American Anarchist." And just a note here - William Powell's obituary appeared in a number of publications just last week even though he died in July.

(SOUNDBITE OF F.S. BLUMM AND NILS FRAHM SONG, "DAY ONE TWO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.