Chapter 3
Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software

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Table of Contents



Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Project Gutenburg

Richard Stallman's mother, Alice Lippman, still
remembers the moment she realized her son had a special gift.

"I think it was when he was eight," Lippman recalls.

The year was 1961, and Lippman, a recently divorced
single mother, was wiling away a weekend afternoon
within the family's tiny one-bedroom apartment on
Manhattan's Upper West Side. Leafing through a copy of
Scientific American, Lippman came upon her favorite
section, the Martin Gardner-authored column titled
"Mathematical Games." A substitute art teacher, Lippman
always enjoyed Gardner's column for the brain-teasers
it provided. With her son already ensconced in a book
on the nearby sofa, Lippman decided to take a crack at
solving the week's feature puzzle.

"I wasn't the best person when it came to solving the
puzzles," she admits. "But as an artist, I found they
really helped me work through conceptual barriers."

Lippman says her attempt to solve the puzzle met an
immediate brick wall. About to throw the magazine down
in disgust, Lippman was surprised by a gentle tug on
her shirt sleeve.

"It was Richard," she recalls, "He wanted to know if I
needed any help."

Looking back and forth, between the puzzle and her son,
Lippman says she initially regarded the offer with
skepticism. "I asked Richard if he'd read the
magazine," she says. "He told me that, yes, he had and
what's more he'd already solved the puzzle. The next
thing I know, he starts explaining to me how to solve it."

Hearing the logic of her son's approach, Lippman's
skepticism quickly gave way to incredulity. "I mean, I
always knew he was a bright boy," she says, "but this
was the first time I'd seen anything that suggested how
advanced he really was."

Thirty years after the fact, Lippman punctuates the
memory with a laugh. "To tell you the truth, I don't
think I ever figured out how to solve that puzzle," she
says. "All I remember is being amazed he knew the answer."

Seated at the dining-room table of her second Manhattan
apartment-the same spacious three-bedroom complex she
and her son moved to following her 1967 marriage to
Maurice Lippman, now deceased-Alice Lippman exudes a
Jewish mother's mixture of pride and bemusement when
recalling her son's early years. The nearby dining-room
credenza offers an eight-by-ten photo of Stallman
glowering in full beard and doctoral robes. The image
dwarfs accompanying photos of Lippman's nieces and
nephews, but before a visitor can make too much of it,
Lippman makes sure to balance its prominent placement
with an ironic wisecrack.

"Richard insisted I have it after he received his
honorary doctorate at the University of Glasgow," says
Lippman. "He said to me, `Guess what, mom? It's the
first graduation I ever attended.'"1

Such comments reflect the sense of humor that comes
with raising a child prodigy. Make no mistake, for
every story Lippman hears and reads about her son's
stubbornness and unusual behavior, she can deliver at
least a dozen in return.

"He used to be so conservative," she says, throwing up
her hands in mock exasperation. "We used to have the
worst arguments right here at this table. I was part of
the first group of public city school teachers that
struck to form a union, and Richard was very angry with
me. He saw unions as corrupt. He was also very opposed
to social security. He thought people could make much
more money investing it on their own. Who knew that
within 10 years he would become so idealistic? All I
remember is his stepsister coming to me and saying,
`What is he going to be when he grows up? A fascist?'"

As a single parent for nearly a decade-she and
Richard's father, Daniel Stallman, were married in
1948, divorced in 1958, and split custody of their son
afterwards-Lippman can attest to her son's aversion to
authority. She can also attest to her son's lust for
knowledge. It was during the times when the two forces
intertwined, Lippman says, that she and her son
experienced their biggest battles.

"It was like he never wanted to eat," says Lippman,
recalling the behavior pattern that set in around age
eight and didn't let up until her son's high-school
graduation in 1970. "I'd call him for dinner, and he'd
never hear me. I'd have to call him 9 or 10 times just
to get his attention. He was totally immersed."

Stallman, for his part, remembers things in a similar
fashion, albeit with a political twist.

"I enjoyed reading," he says. "If I wanted to read, and
my mother told me to go to the kitchen and eat or go to
sleep, I wasn't going to listen. I saw no reason why I
couldn't read. No reason why she should be able to tell
me what to do, period. Essentially, what I had read
about, ideas such as democracy and individual freedom,
I applied to myself. I didn't see any reason to exclude
children from these principles."

The belief in individual freedom over arbitrary
authority extended to school as well. Two years ahead
of his classmates by age 11, Stallman endured all the
usual frustrations of a gifted public-school student.
It wasn't long after the puzzle incident that his
mother attended the first in what would become a long
string of parent-teacher conferences.

"He absolutely refused to write papers," says Lippman,
recalling an early controversy. "I think the last paper
he wrote before his senior year in high school was an
essay on the history of the number system in the west
for a fourth-grade teacher."

Gifted in anything that required analytical thinking,
Stallman gravitated toward math and science at the
expense of his other studies. What some teachers saw as
single-mindedness, however, Lippman saw as impatience.
Math and science offered simply too much opportunity to
learn, especially in comparison to subjects and
pursuits for which her son seemed less naturally
inclined. Around age 10 or 11, when the boys in
Stallman's class began playing a regular game of touch
football, she remembers her son coming home in a rage.
"He wanted to play so badly, but he just didn't have
the coordination skills," Lippman recalls. "It made him
so angry."

The anger eventually drove her son to focus on math and
science all the more. Even in the realm of science,
however, her son's impatience could be problematic.
Poring through calculus textbooks by age seven,
Stallman saw little need to dumb down his discourse for
adults. Sometime, during his middle-school years,
Lippman hired a student from nearby Columbia University
to play big brother to her son. The student left the
family's apartment after the first session and never
came back. "I think what Richard was talking about went
over his head," Lippman speculates.

Another favorite maternal anecdote dates back to the
early 1960s, shortly after the puzzle incident. Around
age seven, two years after the divorce and relocation
from Queens, Richard took up the hobby of launching
model rockets in nearby Riverside Drive Park. What
started as aimless fun soon took on an earnest edge as
her son began recording the data from each launch. Like
the interest in mathematical games, the pursuit drew
little attention until one day, just before a major
NASA launch, Lippman checked in on her son to see if he
wanted to watch.

"He was fuming," Lippman says. "All he could say to me
was, `But I'm not published yet.' Apparently he had
something that he really wanted to show NASA."

Such anecdotes offer early evidence of the intensity
that would become Stallman's chief trademark throughout
life. When other kids came to the table, Stallman
stayed in his room and read. When other kids played
Johnny Unitas, Stallman played Werner von Braun. "I was
weird," Stallman says, summing up his early years
succinctly in a 1999 interview. "After a certain age,
the only friends I had were teachers."See Michael Gross, "Richard Stallman:
High School
Misfit, Symbol of Free Software, MacArthur-certified
Genius" (1999). This interview is one of the most
candid Stallman interviews on the record. I recommend
it highly.

Although it meant courting more run-ins at school,
Lippman decided to indulge her son's passion. By age
12, Richard was attending science camps during the
summer and private school during the school year. When
a teacher recommended her son enroll in the Columbia
Science Honors Program, a post-Sputnik program designed
for gifted middle- and high-school students in New York
City, Stallman added to his extracurriculars and was
soon commuting uptown to the Columbia University campus
on Saturdays.

Dan Chess, a fellow classmate in the Columbia Science
Honors Program, recalls Richard Stallman seeming a bit
weird even among the students who shared a similar lust
for math and science. "We were all geeks and nerds, but
he was unusually poorly adjusted," recalls Chess, now a
mathematics professor at Hunter College. "He was also
smart as shit. I've known a lot of smart people, but I
think he was the smartest person I've ever known."

Seth Breidbart, a fellow Columbia Science Honors
Program alumnus, offers bolstering testimony. A
computer programmer who has kept in touch with Stallman
thanks to a shared passion for science fiction and
science-fiction conventions, he recalls the
15-year-old, buzz-cut-wearing Stallman as "scary,"
especially to a fellow 15-year-old.

"It's hard to describe," Breidbart says. "It wasn't
like he was unapproachable. He was just very intense.
[He was] very knowledgeable but also very hardheaded in
some ways."

Such descriptions give rise to speculation: are
judgment-laden adjectives like "intense" and
"hardheaded" simply a way to describe traits that today
might be categorized under juvenile behavioral
disorder? A December, 2001, Wired magazine article
titled "The Geek Syndrome" paints the portrait of
several scientifically gifted children diagnosed with
high-functioning autism or Asperger Syndrome. In many
ways, the parental recollections recorded in the Wired
article are eerily similar to the ones offered by
Lippman. Even Stallman has indulged in psychiatric
revisionism from time to time. During a 2000 profile
for the Toronto Star, Stallman described himself to an
interviewer as "borderline autistic,"See Judy Steed, Toronto Star, BUSINESS,
(October 9,
2000): C03. His vision of free software and social
cooperation stands in stark contrast to the isolated
nature of his private life. A Glenn Gould-like
eccentric, the Canadian pianist was similarly
brilliant, articulate, and lonely. Stallman considers
himself afflicted, to some degree, by autism: a
condition that, he says, makes it difficult for him to
interact with people.
 a description that goes a long way toward explaining a
lifelong tendency toward social and emotional isolation
and the equally lifelong effort to overcome it.

Such speculation benefits from the fast and loose
nature of most so-called " behavioral disorders"
nowadays, of course. As Steve Silberman, author of "
The Geek Syndrome," notes, American psychiatrists have
only recently come to accept Asperger Syndrome as a
valid umbrella term covering a wide set of behavioral
traits. The traits range from poor motor skills and
poor socialization to high intelligence and an almost
obsessive affinity for numbers, computers, and ordered systems.See Steve
Silberman, "The Geek Syndrome," Wired
(December, 2001).
 Reflecting on the broad nature of this umbrella,
Stallman says its possible that, if born 40 years
later, he might have merited just such a diagnosis.
Then again, so would many of his computer-world colleagues.

"It's possible I could have had something like that,"
he says. "On the other hand, one of the aspects of that
syndrome is difficulty following rhythms. I can dance.
In fact, I love following the most complicated rhythms.
It's not clear cut enough to know."

Chess, for one, rejects such attempts at
back-diagnosis. "I never thought of him [as] having
that sort of thing," he says. "He was just very
unsocialized, but then, we all were."

Lippman, on the other hand, entertains the possibility.
She recalls a few stories from her son's infancy,
however, that provide fodder for speculation. A
prominent symptom of autism is an oversensitivity to
noises and colors, and Lippman recalls two anecdotes
that stand out in this regard. "When Richard was an
infant, we'd take him to the beach," she says. "He
would start screaming two or three blocks before we
reached the surf. It wasn't until the third time that
we figured out what was going on: the sound of the surf
was hurting his ears." She also recalls a similar
screaming reaction in relation to color: "My mother had
bright red hair, and every time she'd stoop down to
pick him up, he'd let out a wail."

In recent years, Lippman says she has taken to reading
books about autism and believes that such episodes were
more than coincidental. "I do feel that Richard had
some of the qualities of an autistic child," she says.
"I regret that so little was known about autism back then."

Over time, however, Lippman says her son learned to
adjust. By age seven, she says, her son had become fond
of standing at the front window of subway trains,
mapping out and memorizing the labyrinthian system of
railroad tracks underneath the city. It was a hobby
that relied on an ability to accommodate the loud
noises that accompanied each train ride. "Only the
initial noise seemed to bother him," says Lippman. "It
was as if he got shocked by the sound but his nerves
learned how to make the adjustment."

For the most part, Lippman recalls her son exhibiting
the excitement, energy, and social skills of any normal
boy. It wasn't until after a series of traumatic events
battered the Stallman household, she says, that her son
became introverted and emotionally distant.

The first traumatic event was the divorce of Alice and
Daniel Stallman, Richard's father. Although Lippman
says both she and her ex-husband tried to prepare their
son for the blow, she says the blow was devastating
nonetheless. "He sort of didn't pay attention when we
first told him what was happening," Lippman recalls.
"But the reality smacked him in the face when he and I
moved into a new apartment. The first thing he said
was, `Where's Dad's furniture?'"

For the next decade, Stallman would spend his weekdays
at his mother's apartment in Manhattan and his weekends
at his father's home in Queens. The shuttling back and
forth gave him a chance to study a pair of contrasting
parenting styles that, to this day, leaves Stallman
firmly opposed to the idea of raising children himself.
Speaking about his father, a World War II vet who
passed away in early 2001, Stallman balances respect
with anger. On one hand, there is the man whose moral
commitment led him to learn French just so he could be
more helpful to Allies when they'd finally come. On the
other hand, there was the parent who always knew how to
craft a put-down for cruel effect.Regrettably, I did not get a chance to
interview Daniel
Stallman for this book. During the early research for
this book, Stallman informed me that his father
suffered from Alzheimer's. When I resumed research in
late 2001, I learned, sadly, that Daniel Stallman had
died earlier in the year.

"My father had a horrible temper," Stallman says. "He
never screamed, but he always found a way to criticize
you in a cold, designed-to-crush way."

As for life in his mother's apartment, Stallman is less
equivocal. "That was war," he says. "I used to say in
my misery, `I want to go home,' meaning to the
nonexistent place that I'll never have."

For the first few years after the divorce, Stallman
found the tranquility that eluded him in the home of
his paternal grandparents. Then, around age 10 his
grandparents passed away in short succession. For
Stallman, the loss was devastating. "I used to go and
visit and feel I was in a loving, gentle environment,"
Stallman recalls. "It was the only place I ever found
one, until I went away to college."

Lippman lists the death of Richard's paternal
grandparents as the second traumatic event. "It really
upset him," she says. He was very close to both his
grandparents. Before they died, he was very outgoing,
almost a leader-of-the-pack type with the other kids.
After they died, he became much more emotionally withdrawn."

From Stallman's perspective, the emotional withdrawal
was merely an attempt to deal with the agony of
adolescence. Labeling his teenage years a "pure
horror," Stallman says he often felt like a deaf person
amid a crowd of chattering music listeners.

"I often had the feeling that I couldn't understand
what other people were saying," says Stallman,
recalling the emotional bubble that insulated him from
the rest of the adolescent and adult world. "I could
understand the words, but something was going on
underneath the conversations that I didn't understand.
I couldn't understand why people were interested in the
things other people said."

For all the agony it produced, adolescence would have a
encouraging effect on Stallman's sense of
individuality. At a time when most of his classmates
were growing their hair out, Stallman preferred to keep
his short. At a time when the whole teenage world was
listening to rock and roll, Stallman preferred
classical music. A devoted fan of science fiction, Mad
magazine, and late-night TV, Stallman cultivated a
distinctly off-the-wall personality that fed off the
incomprehension of parents and peers alike.

"Oh, the puns," says Lippman, still exasperated by the
memory of her son's teenage personality. "There wasn't
a thing you could say at the dinner table that he
couldn't throw back at you as a pun."

Outside the home, Stallman saved the jokes for the
adults who tended to indulge his gifted nature. One of
the first was a summer-camp counselor who handed
Stallman a print-out manual for the IBM 7094 computer
during his 12th year. To a preteenager fascinated with
numbers and science, the gift was a godsend.Stallman, an atheist, would
probably quibble with this
description. Suffice it to say, it was something
Stallman welcomed. See previous note 1: "As soon as I
heard about computers, I wanted to see one and play
with one."
 By the end of summer, Stallman was writing out paper
programs according to the 7094's internal
specifications, anxiously anticipating getting a chance
to try them out on a real machine.

With the first personal computer still a decade away,
Stallman would be forced to wait a few years before
getting access to his first computer. His first chance
finally came during his junior year of high school.
Hired on at the IBM New York Scientific Center, a
now-defunct research facility in downtown Manhattan,
Stallman spent the summer after high-school graduation
writing his first program, a pre-processor for the 7094
written in the programming language PL/I. "I first
wrote it in PL/I, then started over in assembler
language when the PL/I program was too big to fit in
the computer," he recalls.

After that job at the IBM Scientific Center, Stallman
had held a laboratory-assistant position in the biology
department at Rockefeller University. Although he was
already moving toward a career in math or physics,
Stallman's analytical mind impressed the lab director
enough that a few years after Stallman departed for
college, Lippman received an unexpected phone call. "It
was the professor at Rockefeller," Lippman says. "He
wanted to know how Richard was doing. He was surprised
to learn that he was working in computers. He'd always
thought Richard had a great future ahead of him as a biologist."

Stallman's analytical skills impressed faculty members
at Columbia as well, even when Stallman himself became
a target of their ire. "Typically once or twice an hour
[Stallman] would catch some mistake in the lecture,"
says Breidbart. "And he was not shy about letting the
professors know it immediately. It got him a lot of
respect but not much popularity."

Hearing Breidbart's anecdote retold elicits a wry smile
from Stallman. "I may have been a bit of a jerk
sometimes," he admits. "But I found kindred spirits
among the teachers, because they, too, liked to learn.
Kids, for the most part, didn't. At least not in the
same way."

Hanging out with the advanced kids on Saturday
nevertheless encouraged Stallman to think more about
the merits of increased socialization. With college
fast approaching, Stallman, like many in his Columbia
Science Honors Program, had narrowed his list of
desired schools down to two choices: Harvard and MIT.
Hearing of her son's desire to move on to the Ivy
League, Lippman became concerned. As a 15-year-old
high-school junior, Stallman was still having run-ins
with teachers and administrators. Only the year before,
he had pulled straight A's in American History,
Chemistry, French, and Algebra, but a glaring F in
English reflected the ongoing boycott of writing
assignments. Such miscues might draw a knowing chuckle
at MIT, but at Harvard, they were a red flag.

During her son's junior year, Lippman says she
scheduled an appointment with a therapist. The
therapist expressed instant concern over Stallman's
unwillingness to write papers and his run-ins with
teachers. Her son certainly had the intellectual
wherewithal to succeed at Harvard, but did he have the
patience to sit through college classes that required a
term paper? The therapist suggested a trial run. If
Stallman could make it through a full year in New York
City public schools, including an English class that
required term papers, he could probably make it at
Harvard. Following the completion of his junior year,
Stallman promptly enrolled in summer school at Louis D.
Brandeis High School, a public school located on 84th
Street, and began making up the mandatory art classes
he had shunned earlier in his high-school career.

By fall, Stallman was back within the mainstream
population of New York City high-school students. It
wasn't easy sitting through classes that seemed
remedial in comparison with his Saturday studies at
Columbia, but Lippman recalls proudly her son's ability
to toe the line.

"He was forced to kowtow to a certain degree, but he
did it," Lippman says. "I only got called in once,
which was a bit of a miracle. It was the calculus
teacher complaining that Richard was interrupting his
lesson. I asked how he was interrupting. He said
Richard was always accusing the teacher of using a
false proof. I said, `Well, is he right?' The teacher
said, `Yeah, but I can't tell that to the class. They
wouldn't understand.'"

By the end of his first semester at Brandeis, things
were falling into place. A 96 in English wiped away
much of the stigma of the 60 earned 2 years before. For
good measure, Stallman backed it up with top marks in
American History, Advanced Placement Calculus, and
Microbiology. The crowning touch was a perfect 100 in
Physics. Though still a social outcast, Stallman
finished his 11 months at Brandeis as the fourth-ranked
student in a class of 789.

<Graphic file:/home/craigm/books/free_0306.png>

Stallman's senior-year transcript at Louis D. Brandeis
H.S., November, 1969. Note turnaround in English class
performance. "He was forced to kowtow to a certain
degree," says his mother, "but he did it."

Outside the classroom, Stallman pursued his studies
with even more diligence, rushing off to fulfill his
laboratory-assistant duties at Rockefeller University
during the week and dodging the Vietnam protesters on
his way to Saturday school at Columbia. It was there,
while the rest of the Science Honors Program students
sat around discussing their college choices, that
Stallman finally took a moment to participate in the
preclass bull session.

Recalls Breidbart, "Most of the students were going to
Harvard and MIT, of course, but you had a few going to
other Ivy League schools. As the conversation circled
the room, it became apparent that Richard hadn't said
anything yet. I don't know who it was, but somebody got
up the courage to ask him what he planned to do."

Thirty years later, Breidbart remembers the moment
clearly. As soon as Stallman broke the news that he,
too, would be attending Harvard University in the fall,
an awkward silence filled the room. Almost as if on
cue, the corners of Stallman's mouth slowly turned
upward into a self-satisfied smile.

Says Breidbart, "It was his silent way of saying,
`That's right. You haven't got rid of me yet.'"