Chomsky and Me

A MEMOIR


BEV BOISSEAU STOHL


“This is a beautiful, tender and profound book about one of the most important thinkers of our time, by one of the people who know him best. A masterpiece of observation and memoir.”
—Johann Hari


“A ringside seat on the life and times of a man regarded by millions as a remote intellectual deity, but who comes into sharp focus through the delightfully warm and humorous lens of Bev Stohl as a relatable mortal … If you want to know the real Noam Chomsky, this is the book for you.”
—Amir Amirani



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About the Book

Bev Stohl ran the MIT office of the renowned linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky for nearly two and a half decades. This is her account of those years, working next to a man described by the New York Times as “arguably the most important intellectual alive today.”

Through these pages we observe the comings and goings of a constant and varied stream of visitors: the historian Howard Zinn; activists Alex Carey, Peggy Duff, and Dorie Ladner; the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners Lee; actors Catherine Keener and Wallace Shawn; the writer Norman Mailer; gaggles of fourteen-year-old school students, and the world’s leading linguists. All make appearances in these stories. Many who visit are as careless of their allotted time as Chomsky is generous with his. Shepherding them out in mid-conversation is one of Bev’s more challenging responsibilities.

Other duties include arranging lectures to overflow crowds around the world, keeping unscrupulous journalists at bay, preventing teetering ziggurats of paper and books from engulfing her boss, and switching on his printer when it is deemed “broken” by a mind that is engaged less by mundane technology than the realms of academia and activism.

Over the years, what has commenced as a formal working arrangement blossoms into something more: a warm and enduring friendship that involves work trips to Europe, visits with her partner and dog to Noam’s summer home on Cape Cod, and a mentorship that challenges Bev with all manner of intriguing mental and practical puzzles.

Published with the approval of its subject and written with affection, insight and a gentle sense of humor, Chomsky and Me describes a relationship between two quite different people who, through the happenstance of work, form a bond that is both surprising and reciprocally rich.

290 pages • Paperback ISBN 978-1-68219-414-0 • E-book 978-1-68219-380-8

 

About the Author

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Bev Boisseau Stohl, pictured here with Noam Chomsky, worked for 24 years as Chomsky’s office manager. Her writing has appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the MIT Press, and Stethoscopes and Pencils. She has performed stand-up and improv comedy, and has appeared on TV news shows demonstrating her skill in talking backwards. Her dog, Roxy, joined her at work for 13 years, and was christened “The Cat” by Chomsky.

Read an Excerpt

At work, I checked our morning schedule: a student discussing her linguistics research, a crew filming a documentary on the expanding carbon bubble, and a journalist writing about the US elections. I had a habit of holding my breath while concentrating, and I caught myself swaying with dizziness throughout the day, steadying myself with deep breaths. A half-hour before our last appointment, noted on our schedule as “Meeting with Sufi L. to discuss oppressed Sindh people, 30 minutes,” I looked up to see him, a middle-aged man with dark curly hair hanging his coat on our coat rack. Our office assistant, Glenn, ushered him back out to the hallway, where two mesh chairs near an emergency exit made up our waiting area.

When I asked him in, a young woman rose to join us, just as Noam created a logjam in the doorway, uttering a quick hello with a wave and a promise to return soon. To me he was Noam, but to most of the world he was Noam Chomsky, renowned linguist, US media and social critic, political activist, cognitive scientist, and author. Roxy, my cocker spaniel and our usual greeter, slept on her cozy bed under my desk during the commotion. At ten, she was beginning to lose her hearing.

Sufi L. introduced the woman, his student, by name, then introduced himself as “Sufi.” When I took his hand, or he took mine, something unexpected coursed through me. I felt a slow fall into a sense of peace, and for a moment it took some effort to keep my knees from buckling. He had gotten my attention.

Sufi’s eyes, like black almonds, drew me in, and I got it. He was indeed a Sufi, as in the practice of Sufism, which was, to my limited knowledge, a spiritual mysticism. Holding his hand, I felt serenity, nothingness. Nothingness except that he was clean-shaven. I would have expected a Sufi to have a beard. Everyone has told me to breathe more, beginning with the nurse who put me in an oxygen tent as a four-pound newborn. And it was the first thing Sufi—my Sufi (if only for this brief moment)—told me.

Noam met with presidents, activists, prime ministers, and ambassadors. He had discussions with mathematicians, mill workers, priests, physicists, teachers, and performers. These were his people. My, or more accurately our, people were those whose correspondence, a few of the thousand communications we received each week, he asked me to intercept because I could better answer their questions, or to keep him from drowning in the loquaciousness of the more needy folks and the sycophants. Many of the latter were bright and well-meaning souls convinced that his agenda fit theirs, so they could organize themselves if only they had his help. He would often hand me a letter and say, “Acknowledge that we’ve read it, and say I’m away. Be sure to be kind.” In this way, they became our/my people. It had been a while since I’d spent time with one of his.

“The energy around you is calm,” I said as I led them into Noam’s office, where they remained standing to take in the photographs, posters, and walls of books.

His student nodded. “I’ve been working with him for only a week, and I have felt this too.” Sufi’s smile had the pureness of a newborn baby’s. I’m a lousy meditator, a busy, thinking meditator, but in his presence, I could have listened to the silence.

“Can you feel my frenetic energy?” I asked.

“Yes, I can.” Sufi wasn’t mincing words. “You need to breathe more.” There it was—again. I hadn’t mastered the art of breathing while thinking. “Breathe, and stay awake. Be aware of what happens between the breaths. That is where all of life and death is.” I wanted to sit in a candlelit room and talk for hours with this man, my Sufi.

I filled two cups with water, and returned to get our visitors settled. When I handed Sufi a cup, he said, “We feel it in here.”

“What do you feel?” I asked, handing the other cup to his student.

“We feel truth. Truth and goodness.” Sufi found my eyes, his face softening. “This is your bliss. You were born to do this work.” His words felt powerful and true, but also confusing. I didn’t want to pierce his spiritual aura with my self-conscious questioning, but I had to ask.

“Do you mean I was born to work here, in this office, with Professor Chomsky?”

“Yes,” he said, smiling at his student. What did he know that I didn’t? I had often asked myself why I’d chosen to stay when it wasn’t my plan. I liked my job, and at times I loved it, but to say I was born to do it, that it was my bliss, was a whole other thing.

“When you look back on your time here, there will be no regrets,” he said. Had he somehow heard my doubts about the choices I’d made? Had I fallen into a pot of spiritual gold, or into a pile of something quite different? I tried to separate truth from magical thinking in my life, but I wanted to believe him. I needed reassurance that I was spending my days in a meaningful way, because even now, almost two decades after taking this job with the intention of moving on, I questioned my decision to spend my days furthering someone else’s agenda. Had I sold out, kidding myself in the name of ego, or laziness, into thinking that managing his office and “helping greatness,” as some put it, was enough? Was this what I was born to do, or could I have better reached my potential as a therapist, as I had planned?

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