The Chronicle Review

What It's Like to Be Noam Chomsky's Assistant

December 18, 2015

China Foto Press, Getty Images
The first time I didn’t meet Noam Chomsky was in 1992, when a TV news channel asked him to interview me about my ability to talk backward fluently. He said no. I’d like to believe he was actually away, or sick, or that he didn’t get the message at all, but most likely he brushed off the request, sticking to more serious issues. Another linguist, Steven Pinker, took the assignment and determined that my skill, rather than being a sign of linguistic brilliance, was just a trick, like "juggling lit torches from a unicycle" (which I have to admit is on my bucket list).

The second time I didn’t meet Noam Chomsky was a year later, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, when I was interviewed in his office in Building 20, a decrepit army research building, by his longtime colleague and friend Morris Halle, for the position of Chomsky’s assistant. Morris met with several star-struck people whose priority was to become part of Chomsky’s inner world, but my skill set and lack of familiarity with his politics made me his choice for the position. When Morris learned that psychology was my field of study, he issued me a few caveats: "This will not be a warm and fuzzy position. You have not been hired to be Professor Chomsky’s friend."

On my second day of work, a man in his mid-60s with longish graying hair and a chiseled face I recognized from photos arrived in my office looking preoccupied. He wore a gray crew neck sweater over a blue denim shirt and blue jeans rolled up to expose sensible white socks. He held two briefcases, one of heavy blue canvas and the other worn brown leather, with the letters "NC" stamped in faded gold at the top.

He pulled a thick pile of papers out of the brown briefcase. "Backup," he said, as he plunked them onto my circa-1950 gray metal desk, clearly expecting me to understand. He looked up at me, appearing to notice for the first time that I was not his usual assistant, and held out his hand to shake mine, introducing himself simply as "Noam." I then watched him do something I’ve seen a thousand times since: a subtle shift as Noam Chomsky’s mind joined his body from a faraway place, and he arrived in full.

I assumed this would be a less-demanding position than my previous one as an MIT graduate-program administrator, allowing me time and energy to finish my degree in counseling psychology and move on to be a full-time psychotherapist. I was wrong.

My learning curve was steep and long. Like Dorothy when she landed in Oz, my eyes had to adjust to a world more colorful and multidimensional than that of my first 14 years at MIT. Early on, while reorganizing a file cabinet, I found a folder a former assistant had labeled "Nutcase File." Although I was relieved not to find "backward-talking lady" among the pages, as I leafed through the folder, I wondered what I had gotten myself into.

I knew for sure that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore when I found myself checking Noam’s mail during the Unabomber’s reign. When I joked with Noam that we should give each piece of mail a vigorous shake to listen for loose parts, he warned me, "You should take this seriously, Bev. There is a real possibility." How could I lighten the mood if he wouldn’t play along?

I could see from his work that his memory was a force of nature, and one day I dared to ask him about it. He told me he has what he calls "buffers," or little drawers in his brain that he opens to retrieve conversations and correspondence from as long as 50 years ago. He told me he thought for a long time that everyone had this ability.

Over the years, I have had to fight despair as linguistics discussions have given way more and more to the political. I recently heard Noam tell a journalist, "Climate change and nuclear disaster are the two most imminent issues that could lead to the termination of the species." Waiting to show the journalist out, I thought, "Give me sentence structure or give me death."

He is so often preoccupied that he has to be reminded to take care of himself. Visiting his home office, I’ve seen Noam munching on matzo smudged with butter while thumbing through a book when he hadn’t gotten around to shopping for food. When I asked him where he was getting his protein, he answered, "Isn’t butter protein?" Then he tilted his head and grinned as he does when he sees that he "got" me, and he further asked, "How about Scotch? And there must be protein in coffee."

Noam has worn what I call his "uniform" since the day I met him, but soon after his first wife passed away, we ordered new shirts, socks, and slacks for a trip to China. He assured me he had appropriate shoes. After the trip, his Chinese hosts mailed us a box of items, including a framed photo of Noam kneeling to receive an honorary degree. I cringed to see his worn, scuffed sneakers poking out from beneath his black gown. When I pointed out his faux pas, he said, "But they’re black. Isn’t black considered formal?" I think he was kidding.

During my years with Noam, our door has opened to the amazing, the unexpected, the scary: students, activists, authors, at least one Sufi, political prisoners, movie directors, comedians, political hopefuls, musicians, overwhelmed fans, world-champion boxers, international leaders, Cirque du Soleil clowns, brilliant thinkers, lost souls.

I have no idea how Sacha Baron Cohen’s Ali G character sneaked through my gate to ask Noam outrageous things like, "How many words does you know?" and "What is some of them?" I do remember that Noam came to me afterward looking dazed. "No more men in gold suits," he said, sighing.

Once, in Rome, we sat with foreign ambassadors at the Vatican, where Noam lectured on "Science, Mind, and Limits of Understanding." Beforehand, while reading his schedule, he had asked me: "Bev, can we count our thoughts?"

Since I’ve been with Noam, Building 20 has been torn down, and Frank Gehry’s Stata Center has become our home. Throughout, I’ve come to know Noam as guru, philosopher, mensch, muse, and — despite Morris Halle’s warning — friend. As a boss, Noam can send a clear, sometimes abrupt signal when it’s time to flip into professional mode, as if the world had knocked on his skull and reminded him that serious work is at hand. Although he has described our humorous exchanges as life preservers, and he has commented that my cocker spaniel, Roxy (whom he refers to as "the cat"), has provided our office with much needed comic relief, I never feel as if he so much goes to that sober and sometimes grave place, but that he returns there, the place where he lives.

Today, Noam arrived with only his blue briefcase. When I asked him about the leather one, he said, "I can’t find it." In the past, I might have reacted with sentimentality, viewing the missing briefcase as an indication of a winding down, or even forgetfulness. In a more protective mode, I may have joked to ease his possible worry.

But my reaction spoke to another part of the man I‘ve come to know. If he doesn’t know where his briefcase is, it means to me that he’s his normal distracted, preoccupied self. And if Noam Chomsky is distracted and preoccupied, it means he is still walking forward with his usual dogged determination to try to imagine a way out of the mess our world is in. He will need a new pair of sneakers.

Beverly S. Stohl is Noam Chomsky’s personal assistant. Her blog, "Bev Stohl’s Stata Confusion," is at bevstohl.blogspot.com