How to Be a Nonconformist: a fond remembrance

Even given my association with the Freecycle movement, I admit I’m still something of a pack rat when it comes to books and magazines — I’m better than I used to be, but I could stand to get rid of a fair amount of prose even I admit I’ll probably never seriously read through again. But I’ll never part with one slim volume that’s been in my possession for, gad, nearly 40 years now, and has lost none of its charm.

Those of you of a certain age will remember, in your school days, ordering inexpensive books by mail order from Scholastic Book Services. Oh, the excitement when the teacher would distribute the little paperbacks in class several weeks later. Nearly all the books I ordered from SBS are long vanished and forgotten, but not How To Be a Nonconformist, by Elissa Jane Karg. My yellowed but intact edition is the first printing, dated December 1968 (the original, non-SBS printing came out in 1967). In its satirical deconstruction of ’60s hippie/alternative culture centered around Greenwich Village (when alternative types could still reasonably expect to be able to afford living there), complete with artful, painstakingly rendered pen-and-ink drawings and lettering by the teenaged author, it was probably the first prolonged exposure to satire my spongelike nine-year-old brain had encountered. I ate up lines like, “Nonconformists smile only sarcastic & sardonic smiles,” “Nonconformists are cynical and questioning & consistently negative,” and “Playing in a band is cool. The more embittered & loud your songs are, the better,” as Elissa Jane Karg articulated concepts I was only beginning to intuit, decoding the secret rituals and belief systems of the mysterious hippie culture of the older Boomers, eight or ten or twelve years my senior. Even then, I thought a lot of it was silly. She did, too, and unlike almost all of her peers, she got the reason right.

Karg’s ultimate point, of course, was that if everybody does the nonconformist thing in exactly the same way, they’re as conformist as the people they’re rebelling against; in such circumstances, the real nonconformist is the person who embraces the square and the reactionary, or at least a short haircut (if you’re a boy) and eschewing flower-print dresses (if you’re a girl). Sort of a template for embryonic punk rockers, if you really want to push things.

Over the years I’d occasionally thumb through the little book and wonder what had become of Elissa Jane Karg, and a few years ago I surfed the Web and found that an Elissa Karg was the co-author of a book called Stopping Sexual Harassment: A Handbook for Union and Workplace Activists, and was apparently also a freelance writer in the Detroit area, reviewing restaurants for the Metro Times, an alternative weekly in that city.

Today, for reasons too boring to go into, I decided to Google Ms. Karg again and found that, wonder of wonders, How To Be a Nonconformist had been recently reprinted by a company called ONZO Media in Edina, Minnesota. You can buy a copy here for $10, which is 20 times more than my original purchase price of 50 cents in 1968 but still, I think, a fair bargain. (You can even order a highly cool T-shirt using Karg’s original drawings.)

Unfortunately, I also discovered that the Metro Times had also reported that Elissa Karg had died from injuries sustained in a bicycle accident.

Only a month before.

The Metro Times story reads:

<<Karg, who wrote for MT from the late ’90s until a few years ago, was a lifelong socialist who moved to Detroit in the early 1970s to become an organizer for the United Farm Workers during the grape boycott. She was briefly an autoworker before becoming a nurse for the homebound for 25 years. Karg also received a journalism degree from Wayne State University and is the author of the pamphlet Stopping Sexual Harassment: A Handbook for Union and Workplace Activists and the comical How to be a Non-Conformist, which she wrote in high school and was recently reprinted.>>

Elissa Karg, who was 57, leaves two daughters and one granddaughter.

How had she made that journey from promising young artist and writer, and editor of the literary magazine at her high school in Norwalk, Connecticut, to being a sometime auto worker, nurse, activist and restaurant reviewer in Detroit?

In the past, I occasionally thought about sending an e-mail to her and letting her know how much I liked her book, and how much of an early influence it was on me — in my thinking, in my writing, even in my general way of looking at the world. I’m really sorry, now, that I never followed through.

Rest in peace, Ms. Karg. You saw it clearly, and you walked it like you talked it.



3 responses to “How to Be a Nonconformist: a fond remembrance

  1. It was nice to come across this fond reflection on some of my mom’s earlier work. Two years after she was taken from us very suddenly, exchanging stories about the things we appreciated about Elissa continue to ease the grieving process. One of the most frustrating parts of losing someone you admire is the plethora of unanswered questions you are left with. While it is no substitute for the rich conversations you could have had with her yourself, I will try to respond to some of the things you were left wondering.

    So, how did EJK go from being an accomplished teenage author to a working wife and mother of two? Three years into a degree from Oberlin, Elissa got a summer job with the United Farm Workers, during the grapes boycott. While she thought she would be assigned to a more glamorous location in California or Florida, she ended up in Detroit. At the beginning of the summer she met Neil Chacker on a picket line. She fell madly in love with my dad and the city and never left. While part of her always wished she had gone to art school, she was able to find and pursue many passions throughout her life. She was an activist, a writer, a nurse and a gardener. She encompassed all elements of talent that much of the world saw for the first time in How to Be a Nonconformist. She was clever, artistic, politically aware, and attentive in everything she did.

    Anyone who knew Elissa will tell you that she was often the most outspoken person in the room. In many ways, she had the kind of strength that inspired. She also had an eye for detail, and could find beauty in places no one else would think to look. Whether she was refurbishing furniture that a neighbor had tossed on bulk pick-up day, learning about her own strengths while surviving the death of her husband, or commenting on the hypocrisies of her peers, she continued to influence the way others looked at the world.

    Thanks for your post, kind stranger…you never know.

    -Nina Rose Karg Chacker

  2. Nina, thanks so much for sharing your memories of your mom and filling in some of the biographical blanks. You certainly confirm my impressions of Elissa as a model of integrity who continued to inspire all she touched in multiple ways throughout her life, and even afterwards. This post happens to be one of the most-read on my blog (found mainly by people searching “nonconformist” on Google, apparently) and I hope some of those readers will be inspired to find out more about the woman behind the clever book.


  3. Wow! My 22 year old son found this book today, and read it with great joy. He is still amazed that I bought that book when I was 9, and kept it. It was one of my favorite books as a child. Growing up in Queens, NY, I always thought the Village was kind of cool, but even as a kid I laughed at its hipper than thou atmosphere. Thank you so much for your blog!

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