In these days of literary cynicism, it is rare to find an author who is an explicit romanticist; it is even rarer to find one whose books strike such a responsive chord that he is literally deluged with letters. Robert H. Rimmer is such an author. His novels dealing with sexual relationships have been underground and "overground" best-sellers ever since THE HARRAD EXPERIMENT was published in 1967. And his two most recent books, collections of letters from readers accompanied by discussions of his philosophy, have also proved popular sellers.
What is it that Rimmer has to say that arouses such intense interest? Rimmer starts with two premises that will be familiar to REASON readers: rationality (as opposed to unthinking adherence to custom and tradition) and liberty (the right of each individual to live his life in any non-coercive way he chooses). From this starting point, Rimmer searchingly and honestly evaluates Western society's ideas about male/female relationships, sex roles, and marriage. Not surprisingly he finds much that is stupid, senseless, and boring in our sexual customs. If all people—male and female—are equally human, autonomous individuals, why then our sexual double standards? Why does the State need to regulate whom we sleep with, when, where, and for how long? Should we insist on monogamy when technology and medicine allow us long, varied lives and contraception allows us choice in the matter of child-bearing?
Rimmer argues for a radically new sexual ethic. When his first novel, THE REBELLION OF YALE MARRATT (dealing with bigamy) was rejected by 14 publishers, Rimmer and some friends scraped together the money to form Challenge Press, which stayed in business long enough to publish the book and go bankrupt. Undaunted, he tried again with THAT GIRL FROM BOSTON, earning this time a small profit. But it was THE HARRAD EXPERIMENT in 1967 that rocketed Rimmer to fame. In it Rimmer describes an experimental residential college in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in which human relationships are the major emphasis (the students attend academic classes at nearby Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, etc.). Means to Harrad College's ends include male/female roommates, nude physical education, and seminars in human values. The paperback edition was an instant success, despite the total lack of reviews. Soon thereafter, YALE MARRATT was brought out in paperback, this time to sell quite well. And in 1969 Rimmer followed up with PROPOSITION 31, about a pair of middle-class California couples who decide to form a corporate marriage.
The sense of life expressed in these books—the benevolence, honesty, and openness that Rimmer calls "defenselessness"—was among the factors prompting the flood of letters Rimmer has received. He has obviously read and thought a great deal, especially in psychology, and takes ideas very seriously. Rimmer's idealism and avowed literary romanticism have attracted many libertarians. In THE HARRAD LETTERS TO ROBERT RIMMER and YOU AND I, SEARCHING FOR TOMORROW the most frequently-mentioned favorite authors of the letter-writers (besides Rimmer) are Ayn Rand and Robert Heinlein.
What sort of a man is Bob Rimmer? How did this self-made businessman (Harvard MBA in 1941, now president of Relief Process Printing Corp.) develop such idealism and such a radical perspective on sex and marriage? To find out, REASON dispatched contributing editor Mark Frazier to interview him in Boston. Here is what we learned.
REASON: Your books offer a radical evaluation of one of America's least-criticized institutions, monogamous marriage. Why do you think reform of this institution is so critical and what do you think should replace it?
RIMMER: I don't agree with your evaluation of monogamy. Everyone's criticizing monogamy today and they're criticizing the nuclear family and saying that it can't continue to exist. Despite the criticisms, though, it's obvious that some kind of family will still exist. You've got to have some kind of a structure to raise children in, some kind of a family system. If you don't, then you're just throwing the kids to the winds and you'll end up with a weakened society. The whole basis of a family system is to give that youngster the love and security he needs in growing up. The nuclear family doesn't do that or hasn't been doing it, because it's so pressured because of technology and because more and more women are working so they're dependent on day-care centers for rearing children.
I think that what's going to happen is that monogamy per se is going to come in many different varieties in the future. Monogamy will still be there, but it will be much more open-ended. And I think that in 20 years there will probably be very little divorce because of adultery. It would be widely accepted that you would have other post-marital experiences. Along with this there would be many bigamous marriages, whether they were sanctioned by the State or not. The reason I say "bigamous" is that I'm thinking that many of the older people, particularly those on Social Security, would tend to join together in some kind of living form.
REASON: That's happening already, though nobody talks much about it.
RIMMER: Yes, it is, and it's going to become much more common. These are primarily economic bigamous marriages—economic groups of three people trying to stay out of "senior citizen centers." It's a viable arrangement if they are reasonably able to take care of themselves, because then they can have sufficient income by pooling their Social Security.
REASON: A lot of people today are finding it's all they can do to understand and relate to themselves, let alone one other person in a marriage. Why do you think people can handle a number of relationships?
RIMMER: I don't think they can easily. I think they would have to learn to do this. The question is: Will it prove worthwhile if you as an individual have such experiences in expanding your life, by expanding your intimate contacts? Where this is probably going to occur more than any other place is in the colleges and universities. Probably the "showcase" type of people who will be involved in it will be young people—young faculty, professors and their wives, and so forth—because these are the people who have gone through the intellectual training in their marriage and they've read all the books; they're sophisticated.
REASON: What about the Silent Majority types?
RIMMER: Well, especially at the lower middle class level, I would say that to make the mental adjustment to live this way is beyond them. Their whole monogamous system is based on getting married—and then the man goes down to the barroom and watches television and the wife stays home. And the relationship of the male to the female in the lower income groups is considerably different from ours, despite Women's Liberation, which is working its way down to where it's going to change things.
REASON: Isn't Women's Liberation primarily a concern of college-educated people?
RIMMER: Indirectly, it has a greater effect than you'd imagine. The lower income man has a wife who now has to work too to support the family. If they want any material goods or something, and he's making in the area of $10,000, if she's making $7-8000, they're able to live a hell of a lot better. An awful lot of women are working because there is no husband to support them. This lower income woman is now getting out into society—not "Society"—but into the business world, and she's finding out a great deal more about herself in relation to males.
She will no longer take it, so even though she may laugh at the Betty Friedans and the Gloria Steinems or think that they're pretty far out, she's absorbing a lot of it. She's not going to take the husband who goes to the barroom and comes home late. In fact, I was reading an article that the tendency toward all-male bars is gradually drying up. In other words, if you're going to drink, you're going to drink at home with her and not with a lot of men down in the bar.
REASON: What or who among all the forces opposing corporate marriage would you say is most menacing?
RIMMER: I don't think that religion per se would oppose it. A lot of Catholic priests have written me who actually believe in it; they believe it could be incorporated in the framework of their church. This is true of much of the clergy that I have met. But I think the biggest problem is just the general conditioning of the middle class to the idea that sexual sharing is dirty. This could be changed over a period of eight to 10 years. I think the younger generation might tend to correct it, but it's been a long, thorough indoctrination. You just don't have sex on the kind of basis that would obtain in a corporate marriage (where it might be for a certain length of time sleeping with one person, say a week, and then maybe sleeping with another person). This is considered very immoral in this society and this is the old Judeo-Christian heritage.
REASON: John Holt and Ivan Illich talk about the extended family in the early 1900s. It used to be very strong in American life and when it went under, with superhighways and suburbs, white middle class people really lost something.
RIMMER: Yes, I agree. But, you know, the extended family isn't completely gone. I was reading an interesting article, I think it was in the CENTER MAGAZINE, that sheds some light on this. You know the common view that the black family often depends on a matriarchal system because the man runs away and the family is supported and held together by the mother. But this article came out with an analysis of many, many black families and found that this was not so. That even though the father might not be around (or might well be in the background because that's the only way they can get welfare), there is a very large extended family going on among many blacks. So that the mother is not just sitting there alone with her children, but she's got aunts and uncles and all kinds of relationships which are there, which create a very much larger extended family than the average white person has today.
REASON: What do you think of the group-sex movement, the "swinging" groups?
RIMMER: There's a world of difference between the kind of long-term human relationships portrayed in my books and the mechanical world of the swingers. One publisher has been trying to orient his swingers' magazine around PROPOSITION 31. He runs a page in it every month, full of "Proposition 31" advertisements, which is kind of sad because, you know, the couples are advertising, they're not doing it. I have received hundreds of letters from young married couples (married under ten years), who would like very much to find another couple, but they can't seem to find one. I don't know if they can just go out searching or how this happens. I'd say that if it wasn't part of their early educational environment it would be difficult for them to do it.
REASON: You don't think today's under-30 generation is ready for corporate marriages?
RIMMER: I think even people of your generation tend to miss the point. They say, "What the hell, HARRAD already exists—guys are sleeping with girls in colleges." But that's not the point at all. I would say it's not very different in your generation from what it was in mine, in terms of you meet a girl, you like a girl, you can get very committed to this one person. But during three or four years of college it is very difficult to experience maybe two or three "in-depth" relationships. Because the structure isn't set up to do that. You can take a girl to your room or she may take you to hers, but it's a hit-or-miss contact. You don't really get involved. Also, you're not in the environment that I suggest Harrad should have where it would almost be part of the deal.
Keep in mind that all men are not conditioned for this and I'm not saying that everything I say is for everyone; I'm saying it's for some people and that's a good bunch. I would say that people who went to a Harrad-type college should at the beginning assume that they will change roommates and have at least three roommates in their undergraduate years. The learning process then, coming out of Harrad, would make possible a good marriage. Number one, the sexual relationship would not be so tense as it would be for a couple in their 30s trying to experiment.
REASON: Do you think there should be a prerequisite of a Harrad-type experience or, say, ten years of monogamous marriage in order to make a corporate marriage work?
RIMMER: I don't really know. Lately I've been saying, "Why doesn't some college try this?" If a college or university can't do it, they could certainly do it in conjunction with an organization that arranges it, more or less "sub rosa approved." If you can experiment as Masters and Johnson do, with people copulating, let's really experiment with people in their interpersonal relationships and find out about jealousy and find out what it is and why people get "hung up" in relation to each other. You can find out so much about this and yourself in this kind of an environment, but it has to be structured right. That's not so of universities today.
REASON: Many single-sex schools are now going coeducational. Won't this help change the setting?
RIMMER: It will help but it takes time for attitudes to change. Have you read WOMEN AT YALE, written by two graduate females? It's really good. It covers the first year of women being admitted, the male trying to discover himself in relation to these females, and the fact that a great many males wanted an all-male college there. They did not want females. The authors gathered information in over 200 sessions over a period of time, and one of the things that came out very clearly was the goldfish bowl atmosphere of sex that would occur in a contained type college experience, so that everyone would know that Mary is with Joe, etc. So it is impossible for her when the breakup comes.
One interesting thing—one female who entered school just moved in with a guy, the way it is in HARRAD EXPERIMENT. It got back to the dean and he called the guy in and said, "You can't do this. This is not the deal at all. If you want to room together, why don't you get off campus or get married?" But they didn't want to move off campus and they didn't want to be married—they just wanted to live together in the same room. The authors contrast that with the fact that it's all right to take any girl into a room and make love to her, but she can't stay there, you can't be deeply involved. And they contrast it with the weekend system of male/female dating. It's a good book.
REASON: In your own development of this outlook, what has been the strongest inhibition or obstacle that you have faced?
RIMMER: I didn't have any! When I was at Bates (a very square college in Maine), it was coed—long before many other schools. The situation was rough; as soon as you had dated a girl three or four times, it was very hard to switch (although there was some switching, mainly in the freshman year). By the time you were a sophomore or a junior, you were going steady with some female at Bates and that was it. If it didn't work out, well it was very tough; always just one person.
It has changed quite a bit now. In the current Bates environment, there are many girls and fellows who never have a date in their college years, because they're shy or lack confidence. Or a boy might reject a girl because of her looks. It's all very silly. To me education is not grading. If you have a BA in some field of liberal arts and you don't go to graduate school, what is the purpose of that education? Not to teach you a job; you learn that very readily doing it, whether running a business or laying bricks, you can apprentice for that. But four years of contact with thinking people, your own peers, this is an experience that every male and female should have in this society. The chance to rebel, to reevaluate, to do what colleges have been doing and I hope they continue to do—to be the only critical element in society with enough time to sit back and think.
REASON: How do you view masculinity and femininity? Is there a fundamental difference or has society made it all up?
RIMMER: We have social roles we put on people. The old masculine role for men is John Wayne. And yet at least some people realize there is a vast mixture of "masculinity" and "femininity" in each person. The whole idea of sex roles is manufactured at the time a person is born. It's amazing how quickly a baby begins to realize she's a girl or he's a boy. And different because of that—in the way one is handled and treated. Is there something beyond the social? Yes, the physical. I'm very heterosexual, although a lot of people are for bisexuality. I like men and enjoy men, but for physical contact I would not be much interested in them.
I think Women's Liberation is a very good thing. Mostly it is time the males were reeducated. That's one of the things I think would occur at a Harrad. The males and females would be educated together. One of the horrible things about WOMEN AT YALE is the number of men who still want a wife as a social adornment, passive, capable of entertaining but secondary to him.
REASON: What do you think are the most promising recent signs of liberalizing attitudes toward sex?
RIMMER: The whole mood of relaxation. We're approaching it very much more easily. I don't believe in censorship, but I believe in a counter approach. You build back what is being ripped down in "pornography." You can build back from childhood the wonder in just the fact that you're alive. In a technological society, you tend to lose that. And you can lose it in sex, in the mechanical approach to it. That's why in my books the people make love for an extended period of time, and they talk. So the act of love isn't a 20-minute or half-hour affair but hours or a whole evening of communing with each other.
REASON: Bruno Bettelheim, in CHILDREN OF THE DREAM, suggested that people need an outside agent, an enemy or oppressor, that the only way people get communion is by having this type of outside force. Is that correct? Without a threat can people get together and have communion as they do in your books?
RIMMER: Oh, yes, they certainly can, but you have to create a new environment of people. This is why I'm a futurist and a utopian in a sense. As a practical man I'd say "Obviously a tragedy pushes people together." But that need not be. People can be taught this sense of joy and wonder—I don't know how else to express it—it's an interaction. A group of people can pursue something, say in a seminar, and really be supportive.
I spoke to the American Association of Marriage Counselors (what a hung-up group—they're as bad as the people they counsel) and I said, "I think you can learn to be defenseless." That's why I recommend THE TRANSPARENT SELF. It's self-disclosure, the ability to really let yourself go with someone, that will produce a positive response in the same way. Eventually you don't do it as a conscious act anymore; it becomes a part of your personality. You're not afraid any more of being whatever you are. I think it can be taught. Children have it. If you watch children, they're completely open with you. I don't know where the closure comes from.
REASON: Don't public schools seem to close people off a lot?
RIMMER: They certainly do!
REASON: If you're going to have sex education, say, or this awareness education, in a school, maybe you run the risk of destroying the natural openness in children. Is there some other way this can be taught, not through the medium of public schools?
RIMMER: Only if you have very enlightened families. A friend of ours has three children—the boys are eight and six and the girl is four. She's taught them very calmly about sex, so that the daughter refers to her vulva and her brothers' penises. She's really refreshing—I hope I'll be around to see her grow up—her relationship to sex is going to be very wholesome, I would think. Of course, whether the peer group of her environment will shut her out, I don't know. Or some boy who was brought up in that 50% who doesn't get that kind of exposure is going to look at her and think she's a horrible woman.
REASON: Going back to what you said before about defenselessness, your books indicate that you think this is an essential feature of meaningful human relationships. But defenses exist in those places where another person isn't meeting our standards—the defenses protect us from having to condone or accept substandard behavior. How are we to have defenseless relationships if a person fails to meet even one of our expectations?
RIMMER: You're saying, in a sense, that I couldn't be defenseless because I would be asking you to measure up to whatever I was. But by being defenseless what I would mean is that I would also be non-critical in the sense of evaluating you against whatever standards I might have. And I would really be trying to do something else—I would be trying to move over to you, trying to see things from your perspective. I'm asking in return the same thing, knowing that I'm not going to get it in many cases, but it doesn't make any difference either. By the very fact that it doesn't make any difference if I don't get it, then I have insulated myself a little against hurt. In other words, so I'm defenseless with you and you use my defenselessness in a way to clap me on the head with it. But, so, OK, I don't care. It takes a certain amount, like my wife says, "I takes a fantastic amount of ego, and you've got the ego to do it, and other people don't have that ego to do it."
REASON: Could you be critical of someone at the same time that you're defenseless with that person?
RIMMER: Well, you might come to me with a political point of view and I'll be serious because it's a matter of life and death. But then in the process I would try to work toward an understanding. And I would try to let you know, even though I'm arguing and I'm really trying to prove a point of view, that it doesn't get down into a point of personality with me. It's an abstract topic, it's out there and you and I are working on this problem out there, and if you approach it differently from the way I do, it's still out there.
I don't judge your approach as a person, I don't hate you because of your viewpoint or I don't dislike you because of your viewpoint. In most discussions, in most arguments, in most disagreements between people, an awful lot of the time personalities become the subject, rather than the topic allegedly under discussion. They are hating each others' personalities, and I see this in more interpersonal relationships. I always wonder, "Why are they doing this?" It's silly. They're not trying to find an answer, they just want to kill each other. Whereas I would be more likely to approach any kind of problem relationship as if we're both on a voyage of discovery to find out what it is that's out there.
REASON: Do you think that jealousy toward a person can be compatible with love for that person?
RIMMER: Not really. I think jealousy is a very destructive thing; it's destructive to the person who's jealous. I think it's learned and I think it can be unlearned. It can be unlearned a lot faster with children if they're brought up right, but I think even an older person can unlearn it. Just as I also think that the act of sex is learned and sex potentials are learned. If a person, for instance, were never exposed to any sexual stimulus whatsoever, he would have to learn to respond to somebody else, and in the process of learning to respond he or she would do better if they knew how to learn.
REASON: So jealousy could be avoided in a corporate marriage? If people were willing to reeducate themselves?
RIMMER: I would think the minute four people get together (or six—I put a limit on it on the basis of numbers) that the essential thing is that, if at any one point the four people in the group begin to think their egos are more important than the others', then the group by itself is going to come apart. So let's say you do have twinges of jealousy; you know, I'm not so holy that I couldn't be jealous. Let's say that I'm in a group and I have a feeling of jealousy—I'm burned up at some reaction of somebody to me. What I say the person can learn to do is "second-thought" that reaction. And so, the moment he has that feeling, before he blows it, he can stand aside, even if he has blown it, he can stand aside and listen to himself. He can imagine that, over here is not a censor but a calmer person looking at this, not exploding but saying, "Really, this is silly," and "Really, I like these people and I don't want to hurt them; I've got to get it out of my system."
So almost simultaneously, you blow, you are sorry, and you tell them. You're not afraid to do this. I think you can't go around with a pent-up feeling of hatred and be a whole character, because you're repressing, you're going to have emotions—it would be a very dull situation if you didn't have. I'll tell you something. Up in the 5 & 10 they sell vinyl balls, you can blow them up like a beach ball, only they're even lighter. They sell them as a punching bag. If you blow them up and have a bunch of those.…I have the best damn encounters, because you can really throw them with all your force and you can bang someone on the head with one and they'll bounce, they don't hurt you. But you can get rid of an enormous amount of aggression with them.
REASON: We used to have pillow fights to accomplish the same thing.
RIMMER: Right, it's the same thing.
REASON: Many people use drugs of one sort or another, sometimes as escape, others just to relax. What are your thoughts on drugs?
RIMMER: Well, I can't say that I'm 100% against drugs because I drink and smoke grass. I don't see anything wrong as long as either is used in moderation. Incidentally, I bring that into my new novel which will be published in January called THURSDAY, MY LOVE. It has a section in which a man my age grows grass, and then his kids get arrested. So what can I say? I wouldn't try heroin and I don't think LSD interests me particularly. There's one thing about grass I'm sure of (as I'm sure about alcohol) and that's that it's a nice temporary escape if I want a temporary escape.
And the rest of it, it's like I said in YOU AND I, SEARCHING FOR TOMORROW, I can get turned on by Glenn Gould playing Bach sometimes as much as from smoking grass, or just sitting looking at the sky, or watching the trees. So I think that we can teach people to get high in many natural ways.
REASON: You are a successful entrepreneur in two fields—printing and writing. What do you think of business and the market economy?
RIMMER: Well, maybe we're approaching a society—and I have a suspicion that we may be—that isn't so caught up in accumulation. People are starting to find that crass materialism, chasing after a new automobile every two years, is kind of weird. I read somewhere that Ben Franklin said many, many years ago that if we applied labor correctly, man would only have to work about three days a week. But yet on the other hand, Nixon comes out and says we're going back on the same old system; we're going to build the society up by producing more automobiles, so everybody's going to get more employment! Ultimately, would it be better to have a society where you produced an automobile that would last ten years and you didn't chase your head off to have a new car every two years (or a new style, that's all you're really getting) and approach some of these things for what they really are, rather than the image aspects.
REASON: If people adopt some other pursuit, other than production and consumption, what do you think it will be?
RIMMER: That's a big question. If you don't have a basically educated people, probably all you can do is keep them working; otherwise they will end up building bigger Coney Islands and taking very vapid leisure. They won't know how to use the leisure they've got anyway. There will be more murders, more killings, more everything, because they're simply so bored.
REASON: There should be some way people could use their leisure creatively.
RIMMER: Yes, but you're going to have to start at the root and reeducate much of the society to do it.
REASON: Many of the letters in HARRAD LETTERS and YOU AND I mentioned having as favorite authors, aside from yourself, Ayn Rand and Robert Heinlein. What is your reaction to their works and to the philosophies they represent?
RIMMER: Well, you know, Rand and I are in some areas very close together, and in others—in what she means by the basic selfishness of the individual, in terms of accomplishing an altruistic approach by means of being completely selfish—we're far apart. It comes down to the Fritz Perls philosophy of "you do your thing and I'll do my thing and we may never know each other but that's all right and if we do, OK," which is not the way I think the society has to go. That kind of a philosophy won't make it in the kind of world we're coming into.
REASON: What about Robert Heinlein?
RIMMER: I wrote in one of my books that Heinlein should write a book of non-fiction, and I really think he should. Let's take STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND. I think the philosophy is great but not applicable to "here and now." In a sense, HARRAD is science fiction; so is PROPOSITION 31. At least they have more potential of existing than anything in STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND. And yet the ideas that he's thrown in there are fantastic! The other thing that disappoints me about Heinlein is that I have heard from at least four different sources, people who have tracked him down, that he tells them, "This is just a book, forget it; I don't really believe this anyway."
REASON: That may just be his way of avoiding being dragged into public controversy.
RIMMER: But he isn't doing much in terms of what he could do, if he really believed it. And yet his philosophy in STRANGER certainly seized your generation and he's put words like grok and water-brother into the vocabulary. He sensed a feeling, a need.
REASON: In a later book, called THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, he brings in his philosophy, which is libertarian, in a fairly straightforward way. And I think it's less of a put-on than STRANGER. Have you read that?
RIMMER: Yes, I liked that. Particularly because he was advocating line marriage, which is another form of a corporate marital arrangement. I really think he ought to write a book of non-fiction. If he wants to sell something and really say something—because he's said so much through fiction that he ought to—he must have all kinds of ideas about this society.
REASON: Looking over your career as a writer, how do you view what you have achieved?
RIMMER: You know, I look in the mirror and say, "Well, did I write books? I don't believe it." It isn't a question that I think I have achieved so much—the achievement has been personal; in a sense, I found a way of expressing myself. I don't even know if the recognition is vastly important, but I do think that each person needs some way to express his feelings or emotions. When I came out of the Army, I took up painting because I had been in India for a long time. One fellow I knew there was the happiest guy I've ever seen. He did water colors and he must have come home with a hundred that he did of India. People would try to buy them from him, but he was just expressing himself. He was involved; he wasn't like a lot of them sitting around playing cards or drinking or just sweltering in the heat. I think that for my own life, I would be very unhappy if I never found some way to express myself—writing or painting.
One of the things that really bugs me in this country is spectator sports—pro football and basketball and baseball. I'd rather see a guy get out on the lot and play baseball or basketball with some friends. But to sit in the goddamn bleachers with a can of beer or to sit in front of a television set and watch that junk, I think that's sad.
REASON: Who are your own personal heroes?
RIMMER: Well, I don't know—I can't think of any. I guess I'm not a hero worshipper.
REASON: Not as a personality, but from your reading, who do you respect or admire the most?
RIMMER: Oh, I would say Abe Maslow, of course he's dead now, and Rollo May. I suppose I'm somewhat existentialist in viewpoint. I get a laugh out of Vonnegut. You know, I'd like to live my life like Picasso. I would almost pick him for a hero! He's sort of insanely nutty—he's great!
REASON: It's been very enjoyable talking with you. Thanks very much.