An Analysis of Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga
In his first book, Hunter S. Thompson put forth a valiant effort into breaking down who exactly the notorious Hell’s Angels were and what types of things they were doing during the Sixties. To aid him in his effort, he used a mixture of anecdotal and empirical evidence. What was termed “Gonzo Journalism” was his invention and first used in writing this book.
Gonzo journalism is much like being an undercover cop. The differences are that you don’t have to be undercover and your goal is gathering a good understanding of your subjects to accurately write about them, instead of gathering a bunch of incriminating evidence in hopes of prosecuting them. Hunter had the privilege of being able to use anecdotes that actually came from his living with the Angels around 1964–65. Through this gonzo approach, he was able to see these outlaws in all sorts of scenarios that gave him a large pile of experience to dig from when writing about them. He then took those experiences and matched them with empirical data such as crime statistics, the public’s and law enforcement’s perceptions of the Angels, and what role the media played in shaping how they were viewed.
What you come to see is the importance of WYSIATI, or “what you see is all there is,” and how the media was usually just reporting on fringe incidents that the Angels played central roles in. This type of reporting had a major effect on how they were viewed, which was through a stereotype that basically painted them as terrorists who were out to destroy mankind, and it did so because the public at large could only gain a sense of who they were from a limited pool of media coverage. So what Hunter ended up succeeding in was sharpening my sense — and presumably the sense of his other readers — of the reality of these outlaws.
What Hunter discovered was that the rebel biker gang known as the Hell’s Angels — get this — had nuance to their world view. This allowed him to take a wrecking ball to the sensational journalism and downright false reports by law enforcement that built a fence between what exactly the Angels were doing during the mid-Sixties and what pretty much everybody else thought they were doing during the mid-Sixties.
The first thing Hunter did was establish my trust in his absolute authority on everything Hell’s Angels. He started the book with anecdotal evidence that proved he was in deep with these guys. His detail and imagery and setting was absolutely the byproduct of an intense presence of mind, and it grabbed me right away. Then he took viral excerpts from The New York Times, Newsweek, The Nation, Time, and other major publications and showed how they missed how the Angels were really acting and the broader context of where they generally fit into California life at the time.
His toppling of publications of such high esteem rocketed his credibility, though it only gained such high altitude because his framing of affairs came from a distilled sociological and anecdotal, though accurate, assessment as opposed to what seemed like a mostly emotional and heavily false one. The reporting from these different publications was effectively reactionary and presumptuous, and it’s presumably because the editors of the time knew that wide-eyed headlines would draw the sort of virality that their newspapers craved.
One of the first viral opportunities came when the Angels were on one of their many staggering drug and alcohol marathons, known as a “run” (of which Hunter frequented), this time overriding a small California town and ending up with a media induced rape-rap from reporting that was collectively warped enough for Hunter to call it “a curious rape mania that rides on the shoulder of American Journalism like some jeering, masturbating raven.” He goes on to say that “[a]ccording to the newspapers, at least twenty [Angels] snatched two teen-age girls, aged fourteen and fifteen, away from their terrified dates, and carried them off to the sand dunes to be ‘repeatedly assaulted’” (Thompson 84, 85).
His undercutting of these esteemed media institutions was glorious enough that it set the stage for him to explain what really happened, which was that some mischievous young girls seemed to agree to have that kind of sex.
He then brought in what actually made the Angels dangerous that night: they didn’t seem to have any qualms about gangbanging heavily intoxicated young girls. An interesting development comes a bit later when he informs us that the Angels did in fact force humans to have sex with them against their will. It’s just that when they did, it was usually women in their own circle who cheated on one of the members. It was a sick form of retribution for sure, but the nuance comes from the fact that they seemed to have barred themselves from raping people arbitrarily. So basically because the Angels misbehaved and had such extreme human behavior relative to American social norms at the time, their actual actions were being exaggerated, so they gained a reputation that scared a lot more people than it should have.
It’s as though Hunter wasn’t just trying to tell the truth but was actively making sure that I knew he would tell me the truth no matter what the stakes were. He didn’t just start out by exposing the weaknesses of a very powerful media establishment and the activities of some of the most potentially dangerous people around, he even exposed the California Attorney General for making a political witch-hunt out of a false reputation.
He revealed that at the basis of all this coverage was a report filed by then California Attorney General Thomas C. Lynch. The irony is that although the final report included reports from police departments across the state, the stuff they were attributing to the Angels was highly speculative, and Hunter even went as far as saying the report was “…colorful, interesting, heavily biased and consistently alarming — just the sort of thing to make a clanging good item for the national press” (Thompson 129). And of course it did. After a day or two stint in the state media, Hunter thought the Angels would be “headed for obscurity once again” (Thompson 136). But what ended up happening is that the national press — specifically the New York Times, Time, and Newsweek — kicked the snowball down their gigantic readership, which then gathered a nationwide outrage against a group of about 200 people who were mostly just a threat to themselves. Hunter was pretty appalled by this since he got to see all sides of the story. And after all, nobody else who could write anything worth a buck was actually friends with the Hell’s Angels.
His invention of gonzo journalism helped make his reporting so effective. His undercutting of the media establishment, the state government, and the general perception of the Angels was a necessary requisite for what made the rest his book so interesting. I never knew of the Angels as anything other than domestic terrorists, for instance, but my dark stereotyping was replaced by an assortment of intricacies in a hurry. Intricacies that essentially culminated in the Angels being highly extremist partiers, not some out-of-control neo-Nazis. After Hunter desensationalized these blanket assumptions, it was pretty easy for him to gradually set aside the empirics and start unraveling their true capacity through droves of anecdotal evidence. And although the media and the state justice department were blatantly exaggerating in their reporting, the Angels were still very much relatively nuts. Because of Hunter’s gonzo approach, he was able to unload onto his pages some disturbing behavior patterns, which opened the door for him to deduce their collective mental state.
He showed over and over that the Angels actually had the gall to beat a perceived instigator into submission with bull whips and motorcycle chains — sometimes all it took was a snub by some well-meaning bar patron. They also didn’t just draw penises on their passed-out buddies like some college kids might. Almost by matter of principle, they lit their buddies’ testicles on fire, urinated on them, and partook in some other imaginative forms of debasement. Hunter didn’t hold back in revealing their reality. He told us how they routinely took a bunch of different drugs (lots of pills), though barely sold any, and certainly never in such a consistent quantity as to be considered high-level drug dealers, which some people pegged them for. A review in the New York Times cites Hunter’s assessment of the mentality behind their crudeness, essentially painting them as intensely repressed lowlifes who loved to find an excuse to release their rage:
Only one Angel in 10 has steady work; “Motorcycle outlaws are not much in demand on the labor market.” The world demands skills they have no chance of acquiring; “They are out of the ball game and they know it . . . [they] are obvious losers, and it bugs them.”. . . They don’t seek justice in dispensing punishment. Rather, the response is always one of total retaliation. “If a man gets wise, mash his face. If a woman snubs you, rape her.[“] This is the thinking, if not the reality, behind the whole Angel’s act.’ ” (Litwak, par. 12)
What Hunter succeeded in doing here is taking all of his unique evidence and pulling it into the last piece he needed: why the Angels acted the way they did. One obvious danger here is that toward the end of the book Hunter recalls how he finally got beat up by a few of them, so one can never know how much that incident clouded his judgement. Another is that he wasn’t a trained psychologist. Though after living around these people for about a year and gathering such an overwhelming amount of evidence from a bunch of different angles with the direct objective of uncovering who they were, then proceeding to write a New York Times Bestseller on that objective, it’s hard to conclude that he wasn’t actually the highest authority on all things Angels. Because he had this expertise, I think he may have missed the mark by a smidgen.
What I mean is he didn’t really prescribe fixes for dealing with these guys. If Hunter was indeed the ultimate authority and was right that the Angels knew they were losers and were angry about it, wouldn’t that mean they’d have been willing to take a government benefit and go to drug rehabilitation or take some classes in auto mechanics or psychology or economics or biology or whatever area they wanted to so they could stop feeling bad about themselves? Were there other institutional failures that put them “out of the ball game”? Obviously law enforcement didn’t understand them to a degree where they would be able to help them out. Therefore, it was kind of on Hunter to do it. He just didn’t choose to.
Hunter did a correct job of pointing out the negative potential of unchecked systematic bias, but he failed to grasp a second and equally important opportunity: providing a broader outline of America’s growing irrationality when it came to dealing with crime and criminals at the time. To his credit, maybe he didn’t see it at all, but with a book that humanizes some of society’s most animalistic and ruthless of humans, there was a real opportunity to kick off a discussion about how we were dealing with these potential outlaws in their formative years, or how they could possibly be turned around with more of a restorative justice approach even as they were older. America got tangled up in some mean forms of retribution in the mid-21st century — retribution that wasn’t unlike the full-scale retribution of a snubbed Angel — and Hunter might’ve too. I’m especially convinced of this as the last line of his book is this one from Mistah Kurtz’: “The horror! The horror! … Exterminate all the brutes!” (Thompson 1615). We were at a cultural crossroads — crime was growing, political tensions were high — and Hunter didn’t help guide the tide toward more proactive solutions. In fact, he might’ve done the opposite. And although I’m under no illusion that this critique may very well be trivial, what I’m leaning toward is maybe there wasn’t enough relevancy as there could have been.
With that said, for the overwhelming majority of this book, I was enthralled. The flood of insight and perspective he brought to both the Angels’ actual worldview and the susceptibility of even respectable people to act on some of their more deceptive impulses was a very powerful force in understanding the role that data coupled with personal experience plays in unraveling bias. His righting of wrongs with enormous power stacked in his face isn’t something he cowered at but something he reveled in, and that’s to be noted, saved, never misplaced, and often reviewed. It’s also fun to note that he eventually worked for The New York Times, so it’s not like truth to power isn’t rewarded (at least in the journalism industry).