16 A Turning Point

1.

As this tenure spectacle played onstage, my sister Sandra called me on April 24, 1978, to say our father had been diagnosed with acute leukemia. He had only months to live. My grief was immediate, profound, striated with grief for myself. I loved him and could hardly imagine life without him on this planet.

My two loving siblings, twins Sandra and John, were raising young families and lived near my parents in Contra Costa County, east of San Francisco Bay. My father didn’t need me especially. But I needed him. I wanted to say goodbye to him properly, to thank him for being so ambitious and courageous that he’d left a secure job as a police officer in Liverpool and heroically brought to the United States a wife and three children under six, determined on better things. I wanted him to know I loved him deeply for his wild, ravenously curious, uncultivated mind, his exceptional sense of humor—he made us laugh even as he was dying just as he always had when he was alive and vital. I wanted to thank him for turning me into the ferocious woman warrior I’d become (even if he’d done it inadvertently with his old-school patriarchal despotism; yet he was proud of me).

Joe was due a sabbatical, so we took the academic year of 1978-1979 in Berkeley. Joe taught on campus, and I buried myself responding to editorial comments on Machines Who Think. An anonymous reviewer had undermined my editor’s confidence in the book, using the very same devices Mr. Anonymous criticized me for, personal reaction and opinion. Well, yes. That was the point. The book’s subtitle was A Personal Inquiry into the History and Prospects of Artificial Intelligence.

So my editor and I haggled over the months, this wearing me down almost as much as my father’s dying did. I had to remind myself again and again that my name would be on the spine and that every foolish compromise I made out of fatigue or trying to please would appear as mine alone.

On July 25, 1978, Machines Who Think went to press at last.

2.

I was determined to stay in the West. I took a job as a technical writer for a subcontractor at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories. I edited safety manuals for projects ended years earlier, “just for the record,” I was told. I held my peace on that. I visited my father each evening, a sweet twilight in his life. He loved Joe and wished I’d compromise. “You don’t want me to be a bitter old lady,” I protested softly. No, he didn’t. But he was deeply saddened that this marriage was coming apart. I felt I was compromising: I’d be willing to live in Berkeley or Palo Alto (Ed Feigenbaum was inventing jobs for me there) while Joe continued at Carnegie Mellon. Commuter marriages were becoming more common. But Joe wouldn’t hear of it.

Our struggle was all embarrassingly public. “Does Pamela know what she’s asking Joe to give up?” one of Joe’s Berkeley colleagues asked. I knew he was voicing the consensus. Only my therapist, Charlotte Babcock, had ever asked whether Joe knew how much staying in Pittsburgh was costing me.

Manifestos are cartoons. They make no allowance for the living, breathing humans who comprise couples with individual, sometimes conflicting, desires and hopes for the wellbeing of their partner, for the wellbeing of the union. They make no allowance for the oscillations of ascendancy, first of one partner, then the other, responding to opportunity, to responsibility. They say nothing about love, respect, admiration. I mean the patriarchal manifesto, which dominated human culture for millennia (and in many places still does) that has been encoded into religious and secular law, embedded deep in mores, and assimilated into individual consciousness, shaping everything from science to art to law.

The feminist manifesto was an understandable and justified revolt against that patriarchal manifesto, but it was cartoonish, too, with little nuance or allowance for all those human qualities I’ve just named. I worried about it, examined myself, and wondered how different I was from the women I knew. They seethed about the unjust advantages of male privilege, muttered quiet confessions of rage to me. Had I been hypocritical to teach my students about feminism, embody it for them to some extent, and yet continue to remain rooted in a city I found unendurable? No. I gave what I did to a man I loved, respected, admired, to what I hoped was the wellbeing of who we were together. Until I couldn’t any more.

Josephine Harris, Mark Harris’s wife, said to me, “You’re just approaching your most creative period, which for a woman, is in her forties. You’re going to go off in astonishing directions. Do it—let it happen! Try also to remember these words coming from a woman who wants you to do it for her, in her stead, because she couldn’t. Biology makes you make choices too soon. I was married with three children, three hostages to fortune, before I realized I should never have been married. At all.”

3.

In October, I returned from the Berkeley sabbatical to Pittsburgh for a few days to gather belongings from our house. My visit coincided with the announcement that Herb Simon had won the Nobel Prize.

From my journal, October 16, 1978:

Herb got the Nobel Prize in Economics today! I got the news from Allen, when I called to say hello to him and Noël. Very, very pleased for Herb. I remember our conversation once about the Nobel. He’d found out he’d been nominated, and that raised all sorts of irritations in his mind: he’d rather not have known; it opened up possibilities and aggravations he wanted not to think about.

The definition of grace: Herbert Alexander Simon, new Nobel Laureate, found time to call me on this very day because he’d heard I was in town. Could we get together? I was speechless. I wouldn’t even have tried to call him—just left a note on his doorstep, saying how delighted I was that he’d received The Prize, that arête was seldom so appropriately awarded. We’ll try and see each other Wednesday.

October 18, 1978:

A half hour with Herb. We hugged—I felt such a rush of joy being with him. He’d had an inkling—the Swedish equivalent of the Wall Street Journal had asked for his picture a few weeks ago, as one of the leading contenders; then a former student, now financial reporter for a Stockholm newspaper, called to say he’d spoken with a committee member, who said, “I can’t tell you the result, but I think you’ll be very pleased.” And what else would be very pleasing except his former professor had won? Thus he called, suggested Herb be awake at 6:00 a.m. the next morning. “It wasn’t a problem,” Herb laughed. “I could hardly sleep that night.”

He’s so dear and funny. We talked very personally about the effect of the award, that “perhaps it would take the edge off some of his competitiveness.” I asked what he meant, and he said now he could stop worrying about who else got The Prize. I had to laugh. He was also glad for the boost it would give his kind of economics [behavioral] for youngsters who wanted to go into the field.[1] “They couldn’t get a dissertation through these guys here,” he said, referring to the Friedmanites who now run the CMU economics department. We laughed together rather wickedly over the people who’d be gnashing their teeth—Milton Friedman, for starters. He urged me to come back to Pittsburgh where “good work gets done.” I said I missed our afternoon sherries. Yes, he said. Now it was a long walk home…. I left reluctantly because I felt, with his usual grace, he wasn’t rushing me, but surely he must have tons to do today. He seemed sorry to say goodbye. Another hug

I told Noël Newell later that Simon had urged me to come back to Pittsburgh and do good work. “Why would you do that, when you’ve finally had the guts to break away?” she said, pained.

I returned to California. A few days later, on October 27, 1978, my 38th birthday, we got news that Vera Watson, John McCarthy’s second wife, had been killed on her attempt to scale Annapurna. McCarthy made a statement to the press: “She was a woman with a taste for achievement, and I encouraged her to make this ascent.” Suffering deep grief myself, I understood how gracious and courageous that statement was.

A week later, as my stressed-out mother went to soak in a hot bath, I sat with my brother and sister on a little bench in my parents’ bedroom, all of us holding hands. We watched our father die the night of November 2, 1978.

That November was grotesque. A week or so after my father died, a woman was found raped and murdered at the Lafayette Reservoir, a pleasant park near my parents’ house where my father jogged daily when he’d been well and where my brother still jogged; where my mother and I were regular walkers. Another few days, and the Jonestown tragedy came. Hundreds of San Franciscans who’d followed a cult leader to a remote place in South America committed mass suicide by drinking poison-laced Kool-Aid he forced on them, which added an acid phrase to the language. After another few days, the mayor of San Francisco, George Moscone, and the gay activist and council member, Harvey Milk, were assassinated by a deranged former policeman, Dan White, who was offended by Milk’s gayness, offended by Moscone’s liberalism, and who got off later on the infamous Twinkies defense—excessive junk food had disturbed his mental balance.

The world had gone mad. Personal and public tragedies had conflated.

4.

Mercifully, November 1978 was the nadir. In January, Joe told me that he’d been offered a named professorship at Columbia University, with the task of starting a new department of computer science. It wasn’t the West, but I was willing to go with him to New York City in March and at least look things over. I’d been happy as a graduate student in New York, and, after all, it was the company town, the self-styled publishing capital of the United States, some claimed the English-speaking world.

Earlier, I’d written an essay for a memorial volume on Gladys Schmitt, the Pittsburgh novelist who was much beloved there. I’d only met her a few times and had a lunch date with her on the very day she died. The book arrived and ended with a short story of hers I’d never seen. It gave me a sudden and peculiar insight into my extreme despair in Pittsburgh.

January 14, 1979:

The story has a brief description of a young child in school, and it evoked being in grammar school in the East when we’d first come to the United States. Everything seemed so harsh, so extreme—the cold, the steam heat, the utter misery at home.

We five had crowded in with relatives who, after nine months, understandably ran out of patience with our stay. This forced us on other, much more benign relatives for another six months.

Then we arrived in California and everything changed abruptly, like the scene in The Secret Garden, where the children step from black-and-white into a Technicolor garden; where Dorothy steps from drab Kansas to glorious Oz. So it was for me. I vividly remember the first hours in California. I was seven, and it’s all as clear as yesterday.

I must have assimilated all that despair in the face of harsh silencing and extreme stress between ages six and seven. No accident that the Schmitt volume is called I Could be Mute. Somehow in the passage of the seasons, the brutality of the environment, in every sense, is always re-triggered by all those seasonal cues in the East. In Pittsburgh, I remember many, many hours of feeling like a child shut up on an endless rainy Sunday afternoon. Very hard to explain to anyone else, but it makes sense—and I sense it as truth.

Lotfi Zadeh, an old friend, the inventor of fuzzy logic, and always a keen photographer, took a picture of me for the dust jacket of Machines Who Think, the last step before the actual book appeared. Joe remarked how much like Hortense Calisher I looked in that picture.

March 2, 1979:

A stunning perfomance of Brahms’s German Requiem—ever my favorite—in the Stanford Chapel. Ed was singing, of course, but invited us first to dinner at the Faculty Club, along with Jill and Don Knuth, John McCarthy, and Carol Talcott, Penny looking splendid as always. John relaxed and peaceful, though like me, he had a bad time during the second movement of the Requiem. I put my hand in his just to squeeze it, say I understood, but he held on throughout the performance. I was glad.

5.

On August 27, 1979, two days after we arrived in New York City, the first copy of Machines Who Think was in my hands.

As Joe and I walked into the lobby of 450 Riverside today, the porter, Norman, was just carrying a special delivery copy of the bound version of MWT. I’ve been enraptured by it ever since. I’ve pawed it, read it, been cheered by it. Hell, it’s a superb book, that’s all. Even the dreariness of dealing with the Chemical Bank couldn’t dampen me. I bounced around Morningside Heights all charged up—or even more charged up, since New York has the effect on me that speed has on other people. And wherefore was it glorious? Not because the way was smooth and placid as a southern sea… I am unequivocally proud of myself.

My favorite private message was from Allen Newell, who wrote three pages, single-spaced. I copied into my journal:

“Your book is not merely history but an entry into the intellectual lists, a way of looking at AI as part of the human enterprise in a big way. I like it better than any other. However, you shouldn’t have ignored linguistics and psychology the way you did: it distorts things improperly.[2]

I commented:

Though Allen is mainly praising, and I’m grateful as usual for his attention to detail, I also felt a certain sadness. MWT is not the sweeping scholarly history Allen mentions as an alternative (and that I didn’t intend to write) nor is it the popular book that will vault me to renown. I fear I’ve fallen between two chairs again… The book has disappeared into the gloom of respectable, but unreadable. Unread.

But my editor called in early February 1980 to say that Philip Morrison had given the book “a very enthusiastic review” in Scientific American. “Do you have any idea how unusual this is?” my editor asked. “Phil bends over backwards not to review Freeman’s books because of our connection with the magazine, but apparently he really liked Machines Who Think.”

February 15, 1980:

Today I sat in the park and realized I’d reached some great life goal. I’d written a book, and just seen it publicly praised by someone I admire enormously, Philip Morrison, in a place where many people I care about will read its praises. In the March 1980 issue of Scientific American, a book I wrote is called delicious, witty, informed, open, rich in direct and candid testimony, offering a good deal of wise reflection. It is called splendid, judicious, a fine study. So I sat in the park and savored the experience of such lavish praise, such gratifying acknowledgment of all that hard work and grubby obscurity. How did it feel? It’s the best feeling I ever had! I’m full to bursting! I could’ve flown unassisted! Let’s hear it for fame and praise! It’s terrific!

Forty years later, during a celebration at Carnegie Mellon in April 2018, I heard that the book had inspired and influenced a generation of leaders in the field. These were now senior people. I swallowed a bit to get over the idea that I was that old, that the book had been that long ago, and smiled happily.


  1. As I’ve noted, behavioral economics would thrive in the future and make mincemeat of the rational man assumptions of neoclassical economics with subsequent Nobel Memorial Prizes in the Economic Sciences to Daniel Kahneman and Richard Thaler.
  2. This lapse may explain the unrelenting, and to me, inexplicable hostility from Roger Schank, then in machine linguistics at Yale. One day, my stockbroker invited me to sit in on a due diligence presentation for equities analysts at the University Club in midtown Manhattan. Schank, whose startup was the occasion for this, marched in, saw me, stopped dead, and with his usual courtly presence, yelled, “What the fuck are you doing here?” He actually called my broker afterwards demanding to know why I’d been permitted to come. My broker cleared his throat “Well, she controls a portfolio of several millions.” Even a stockbroker’s fiction has its uses.

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