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Dan Mathews' Committed: A Rabble-Rouser’s Memoir [11 July, 2007]

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By Dan Mathews; Atria; 272 pages

Dan Mathews is a vice president.  Ordinarily, people with such titles are somber spokespersons for their causes and/or organizations.  But Mathews holds this post at PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, www.peta.org), an animal -rights group that’s notorious for throwing paint at the furs of rich socialites.  So, a typical day for Mathews might mean spending a few stifling hours in a giant carrot suit outside an elementary school in Nebraska, holding a sign that says “Eat Your Veggies—Not Your Friends.”  Much to the horror of at least one parent who hustles her children away from the sordid sight with the words, “Kids shouldn’t talk to strangers, even if the stranger is a vegetable.”

It’s this combination of the absurd and the deeply earnest that makes for PETA’s lasting influence since 1980, when Alex Pacheco and Ingrid Newkirk founded the organization.  Today, it has branches in countries as disparate as the Netherlands and India.  PETA’s activism is similar to ACT UP’s work in the “80s and early “90s: a blend of street theatre and angry protests carried on by people who are willing to literally put their bodies on the line.  (The two groups have themselves clashed over PETA’s policy of not supporting AIDS pharmaceutical research that uses animals.) PETA is most famous for its guerilla tactics.  In the 1980s, it sneaked half a dozen people past an unsuspecting security guard at the Calvin Klein office, and scrawled anti-fur graffiti over his walls.  According to Mathews, Klein finally met with PETA, watched videotapes of animals being killed for fur and stopped using it in his collections.

Mathews is frequently at the center of such demonstrations.  He’s been with PETA for over 20 years and shows no signs of burnout (see accompanying interview) .  His memoir, Committed: A Rabble-Rouser’s Memoir, is both a personal history and a history of PETA’s gradual evolution from a group that took “animal rights from a grandmotherly concern into a vibrant youth culture movement.”  Perhaps the most enduring character in Committed is Mathews’ mother, Mary Ellen, who raised her kids on very little money but without any shortage of humor or sense of social justice, whether marching with immigrants or putting up a sign with the words “Impeach Nixon” in their front window.  Mathews himself refused to stand up for the pledge of allegiance at his high school graduation because he was “uncomfortable with nationalism.”

Within an engaging personal narrative, Committed provides a snapshot of a leading contemporary activist movement and the strategies that organizations have to adopt in order to make themselves relevant to successive generations.  As Mathews puts it, “we had to boil the brains out of many of our efforts.”  PETA has the complicated job of initiating serious public discourse about why animal rights matter, but it also has to vie for attention in an era dominated by cable television and tabloid media.

So, its Web site provides tomes about animal rights by the likes of the philosopher Peter Singer, and it continues with grassroots efforts aimed at students and youth leaders.  At the same time, it increasingly uses celebrities to promote the cause, and Pamela Anderson is its most famous spokesperson.  (A brief biography of her in Committed reads too much like publicist’s material, creating the only jarring note in an otherwise seamless narrative.)

It’s hard to separate this story of PETA from Mathews’ own life, but that’s part of the point.  He doesn’t claim to be the sole driving force behind the organization, but it’s clear that his work defines and drives him.  Committedis about a fat, poor, gay kid who was beaten up for all those reasons, became a vegan, worked a series of odd jobs—including a stint as a hustler in Rome—and ended up working for the world’s leading animal rights group.  The book is neither self-pitying nor melodramatic, and it’s a sharply written and very funny account of his life and experiences that, thankfully, never stops to take a breath to become uplifting.  A lot of contemporary memoirists could learn from it.

Originally published in Windy City Times, 11 July, 2007


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