Bettina Aptheker is a well-known American radical who in the 1960s was a leader of the campus Left, and now, like so many of her peers, is a tenured activist on the faculty of a major university. Her father, Herbert Aptheker, was the Communist Party’s most prominent Cold War intellectual and, as the Party’s “leading theoretician,” a noted enforcer of its orthodoxy. The author of a notorious tract justifying the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary, Aptheker earned academic credentials as the author of a Columbia University doctoral thesis on American Negro Slave Revolts and was appointed editor of the papers of fellow Communist and friend, W.E.B. DuBois, and eventually executor of his literary estate. These achievements made Aptheker an unwitting intellectual forerunner of the ethnic and gender “identity politics” that would capture the allegiance of his daughter’s generation and supplant the economic Stalinism that was his own window on the world.
“The Party was everything” for him, his daughter tells us in a newly published memoir – “glorious, true, righteous, the marrow out of which black liberation would finally come.” His truth was not that of the scholar and skeptic but of the priest, framed “in absolutes: Loyalty, loyalty to this movement above all else.” It was a mantle the daughter aspired to put on: “To inherit a father’s dreams makes you the eldest son. To further his ambitions makes you heir to the throne.” The apercu is quoted from an anthology of lesbian writings and appears on the very first page of her memoir, provocatively titled Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought for Free Speech, and Became a Feminist Rebel.
I sat down to read this memoir expecting to learn little or nothing from the effort. The low expectations were not personal but a response to the genre of Communist memoirs, with which I was all too familiar. Political missionaries such as Bettina Aptheker and her father are self-confined prisoners of a religious faith, a fact she unexpectedly acknowledges early in her text: “While some families embraced religion to believe in and guide their lives, we had Communism.” It is this fact that makes such reminiscences normally unrewarding. The moral compass of an ideological faith requires a flattening of the human landscape and the reduction of its complexities to the formulas that enable its pilgrims to chart their earthly progress.
In the Apthekers’ household, this moral rectitude routinely required the suppression of facts inconvenient to their cause and the occlusion of perspectives that questioned its truths. The father’s apologetic for the Soviet outrage in Hungary was an obvious case in point. By her own account, the daughter rigidly followed his ideological footsteps. Indeed despite her claim to be a “feminist rebel,” she owes to him every achievement of notoriety in her own political career. By her own account the Aptheker daughter was not even aware of the ideas of non-Party Marxists like Herbert Marcuse and Maurice Merleau-Ponty before encountering them in graduate school in her late twenties. “There was a whole world of ideas out there about which I knew almost nothing,” she observes in her text, “because my reading had been so (self-) censored.” It is an even more striking admission in that she had spent the previous 10 years as a student and political actor in an environment – Berkeley – which was the capital of the “New Left” and thus the center of a veritable renaissance of unorthodox radical ideas.
Because of the authorial mission, the first editorial principle of the ideological memoirist is invariably the exclusion of the politically inexplicable. Unruly experience cannot be permitted to enter the autobiographical frame where it might unsettle the meanings of a devotional life. Drained of the unexpected, such reminiscences, therefore, are not really self-portraits but summaries of the hero’s political postures over time. Eric Hobsbawm’s Interesting Times is an example of the genre, as is the autobiography of Al Richmond, one of Aptheker’s Party mentors. But it is not only memoirs by Communist authors that suffer this literary constraint. I remember my acute disappointment on reading the autobiography of Irving Howe, a stalwart of the anti-Communist Left, just because of this fact: In writing it, he had left out his life.
The very title of Aptheker’s book, Intimate Politics, was unpromising. It is an obvious play on the familiar feminist slogan, “the personal is political.” As I understood it, the phrase expressed an ideological will to reduce everything personal to a political formula, stamping out the messy particulars of an individual existence in the process.
Despite these forebodings, my interest in Intimate Politics had been piqued (along with everyone else’s) when a dark secret at its core was leaked by the first reviewers. The famously loyal daughter of a famous progressive father had outed him as a child molester. In the daughter’s telling – which is hard to credit – she had repressed the memory of her molestation for 40 years and recovered it only as she sat down in her fifties to interrogate her past. According to the daughter, the father whom she adored as an avatar of humanity’s future “liberation” had forcibly masturbated on her innocent flesh “from early childhood until age thirteen.” To conceal the shame, he had terrorized her into silence with a threat, which merged with the political terror that defined their lives: If you speak out, if you reveal who we are, you will betray us, and “terrible things will happen.” So fearful was the child of losing her father to unseen forces if she spoke the truth, she suppressed it, keeping the secret eventually even from herself.
The daughter’s 500-page memoir, 10 years in the writing, is framed by this secret and by its unceremonious revelation at the end of the patriarch’s life: “As I began writing, sifting through my childhood memories, they erupted in ways I would never have predicted. A story emerged. A fault line opened and my world underwent a seismic shift.” So she begins her book; and closes it with her confrontation with the patriarch over his unspeakable crime. At the time of her revelation, Herbert Aptheker was 84-years-old and had already suffered a “major stroke.” Fay, his wife of 62 years, was dead a mere 17 days. Yet, in response to a seemingly innocent question, “Did I ever hurt you when you were a child?” she accuses him: You are a molester and I am your victim. “This is worse than Fay dying!” the old man squeals. The daughter drives on: it happened. Desperation overwhelms him. He talks of suicide. Facing a personal destruction as complete as if his existence had been erased by a totalitarian state, he denies the claim. “I can’t live with this…I have no memory of it! You must have dreamed it, or read about it somewhere! I cannot live with this. Therefore, I deny it.” But the daughter persists and the old man, increasingly frantic, clutching at his own reality as it slips irretrievably away, interjects bizarrely: “You know a great moment in history? Nat Turner was in his cell. One arm chained to the wall.” He is reaching for the legacy and the myths that have sustained him and has become in his own mind one with the rebel slave confronting the jailers who are about to execute him, crying, “Was not Christ crucified?”
It is a scene of betrayal unique to this literature. For a family living for history, as the Herbert Apthekers did – living for humanity – this is the point of no return. Talk about giving aid and comfort to the enemy! Talk about the patricidal fury of the heir apparent! Talk about unruly!
For Bettina Aptheker, the recovered incest memory – if that is what it is – provides one of the insurmountable fault lines in the perfect sense her parents attempted to make of the world with their progressive values and ideas. But in the end it is not what triggers her exit from the Stalin cult or propels her on the road to her second thoughts. The prime mover of this painful odyssey – the indispensable peg that will not fit the ideological frame – is not any act inflicted on her but the contingency of her own sexual identity: “I don’t think I ever would have moved out of the perceived safety in which I had enclosed myself by the mid-1970s had it not been for the fact that I was a lesbian. My strong desire to live my own life – as a lesbian and as a feminist-activist scholar – overrode fear, parental pressures, and Communist imperatives.”
But here, as on many other occasions in her book, her self-understanding falls short. For the desire that drives her story is more than just a need to live her own life. It is also the religious desire for a vision that will unify her life. The desire to close the gap between her personal truth and her political ideas is the true theme of Aptheker’s memoir, justifying both the title of her book and the feminist slogan from which it derives. It is this need that drives her ruthless determination to confront the fault lines of her parents’ lives and her own, even when the confrontation is emotionally violent; even when it expresses itself in cruel and unnecessary acts; even when it means ripping asunder the foundations of hearth and home.
Everywhere in my life there were secrets. There were those I was told to keep and others about myself that I chose to keep…[These] secrets kept me isolated, especially from other children, and instilled in me the belief that what went on at home had nothing to do with my parents’ political beliefs – those of socialism, peace, social justice, racial equality and civil rights. Of course, I didn’t see the contradiction between the way they lived and what they believed until much later, when I realized that I had to live what I believed if I was going to overcome my past and thrive as an authentic person.
Not all the secrets were sexual. Some were personal, like the fact of her mother’s first marriage, which she discovered inadvertently at the age of 10, when an old family acquaintance accosted them in a department store and addressed her mother by a previous married name: “Now I knew that Mother and Father had lied to me my whole life about something that felt very important to me. What else had I not been told? What else had I been told that wasn’t true?”
But the Aptheker secrets were above all political, deriving from the public activities that provided meaning to their lives. Bettina describes the execution of the Rosenbergs, the martyred saints of the Communist church, as “the political nightmare of my childhood,” a common experience for those of us who grew up in that radical generation. She was eight at the time: “After their execution my mother pulled me onto her lap one evening when she got home from work. We were in the big green leather chair in the living room. She said: ‘I have something very important to tell you.’ Her voice was soft, almost without inflection. I could feel her breath on my cheek. ‘Your daddy and I are Communists. You must never, ever tell anyone. Do you understand?’” The message was clear. If you reveal who we are the consequences may be death.
A year later, at a camp for “progressive” children, Bettina betrayed the secret. The children were lying on their bunks before going to sleep, boasting about their parents, and ranking them politically. “My parents are Communists,” said one proudly. “Mine aren’t,” responded another, challenging the presumption of virtue behind the claim. “‘My parents are Communists too,’ I said. Then I froze. I had betrayed the secret. I was terrified. FBI agents were lurking outside our bunkhouse. They would have heard me. They would arrest my parents….” Terrible things would happen.
But of course, it was pure fantasy, since – as Aptheker herself concedes – her father was a publicly known Communist. Her mother was protecting her from possible repercussions from other children and unwittingly terrorizing her instead.
Decades after, Aptheker had occasion to contrast her family’s Byzantine household with a conservative foil. She and her life partner, Kate Miller, were visiting Miller’s Lutheran parents, who were from the Midwest and who believed – and made no secret of their belief – that an “unrepentant homosexual” like their daughter “would literally burn in hell.” It was an attitude, however, as Aptheker notes, that didn’t prevent them from loving their daughter. Aptheker had spent decades in the closet out of fear of revealing her secret to her own mother and father (and for a long time even herself), because she thought it would mean expulsion from her family and her Party and world. What she was observing in Kate’s family came as a revelation: “I was most amazed however by their family interaction. The content may have been conservative, but at least everything was out in the open. In my family, everything was communicated by innuendo, and undercurrent, and we kept so many secrets from each other, lying by omission, by denial, by erasure.”
Not surprisingly, the secrets of the Aptheker household were accompanied by a psychological rage whose dimensions could be frightening. “Though my father was passionate and articulate on behalf of causes he believed in, particularly Communism,” Aptheker observes, “this fire could also quickly turn to unrestrained anger.” She provides examples. The stories of his war service are mainly “harrowing.” On one occasion he recalls for his daughter that he pointed his sidearm at the head of the unarmed mayor of German village after liberation, demanding milk for children in a refugee camp. “My father cocked the gun and told him to find the milk or ‘I’d blow his goddamn head off.’ The milk arrived but my father still regretted not ‘shooting the sonofabitch anyway.’” This could have been mere bravado, but the incidents she relates are too numerous and too detailed to doubt.
“When I was growing up my father’s fury was most often directed against those in the party he perceived as ‘renegades’” – those who strayed from the ideological path – or those he perceived as agents of the “ruling class.” To Aptheker, “these men were ‘bastards,’ and ‘sons of bitches,’ ‘maniacs,’ and ‘liars.’ He snarled these epithets, dumping these men onto the garbage heap of history.” I have written almost identical sentences about my own Communist father (and about my family’s secretive ways) in my own memoir, Radical Son. These rages made Bettina anxious as a child that others would regard her father was “crazy,” because that was how she felt to him when he went into rages at home and when he cried after he molested her.
Her mother’s anger was more immediately threatening, because it was often directed at her. “My mother became furious if I didn’t finish my food, but fear of her anger made me too nervous to eat.” She shouted at her to stand up straight and to stop crying. (“Can’t you do anything right?”) The rules were the instruments of the perfection she and her husband sought in life. Occasionally the fury expressed itself physically: “Once, when I was about eight, I was fussing as she brushed knots out my hair, and she got so angry she hit me on the forehead with the brush. I remember a small trickle of blood ran down my nose. She blotted up the blood with a wet washcloth and continued brushing my hair. She didn’t say anything and I didn’t dare move or speak.” (Aptheker does not feel the need to explain how she remembers this trauma so clearly while repressing sexual assaults that continued for 10 years, but the reader may wonder.)
These themes of perfection, repressive silence, and explosive rage are built so deeply into the structures of the Aptheker family that we are treated to this appalling scene:
A few months after I started writing the story of my life, I took my parents out to lunch. It was 1995. I was fifty, Mom was ninety and Dad had just turned eighty….All through lunch my father sniped at me. I tuned out his mean-spirited jibes about my appearance, my work, my lack of productivity, my children, my political view, as quickly as he made them. The only reason I remember them now is because it was so bad that our waitress, with whom my father had been ‘joking’ in a series of thinly disguised sexual innuendos, intervened. My father had wanted to order dessert. The waitress said, “I’ll bring you dessert if you stop being so nasty to your daughter.”
Her reflection on this incident is that the intervention of the waitress’s outsider view is what allowed her to notice her father’s attack. “This was how it was in my childhood. What was untenable was erased.”
The Apthekers had recreated in their own family a replica of the totalitarian state: secretive, repressive, sealed off from a hostile world – a fact which Bettina, to her credit, can now appreciate, if still incompletely: “This was my own private gulag – Stalinism internalized, unmediated, intensified by the madness of McCarthyism, and shot through with the terrible violence of my parents’ frequent outbursts.”
She recognizes, too, that in her father, the private gulag has its totemic leader, whose perfection cannot be questioned; nor can the household’s secrets be revealed without inviting fearsome retribution on them all: “Looking back now, I know I couldn’t have allowed for any memory of my father’s ‘games’ with me if I was going to survive the fear that he would be taken away and the terror that surrounded those times.” This external “terror,” which to her mind still makes possible the internal family terror, is symbolized by the execution of the Rosenbergs, which occurred six weeks after her father had testified before the McCarthy Committee. “In those months, and long afterward, I could hear my father shouting and screaming in the middle of the night as he awakened from nightmares; then I would hear my mother’s gentle, urgent whispers calming him down. And then there were those times when he came to me in the middle of the night.”
The circle is closed. But who has closed it? On this crucial point, Aptheker remains ambivalent, and worse. She wants to attribute a role to her parents in creating the ideological gulag they all inhabited (and to indict them for it), but she also wants to defend their ideological judgments about the outside world – their sense of themselves as victims and as the champions of victims – as well.
Of the matters just described, she writes: “It was a terrible irony that my parents faced the terror of the McCarthy era with so much courage, and yet lined my heart with so much fear.” But in fact there was no “terror,” except one that was self-generated. The Rosenbergs would not have been put on trial or executed if they had not spied for the Soviet Union. Her parents’ political affiliation, as Communists, would not have been troublesome and their political secrets would not have been a daunting factor in Bettina’s childhood, if the Apthekers had not joined a conspiratorial party whose agenda was the overthrow of their government, and whose allegiances were to a foreign power hostile to the country which they inhabited.
“In fact, my parents were never arrested,” she concedes without exploring its implications. The reason for this is embedded in the sentence that follows: “My father never went underground, as happened to so many of the fathers of the children I knew.” The clear implication is that Communists had to go underground to escape the terror. But the terror they were escaping was their own invention.
What Aptheker is referring to is a famous moment in the postwar history of the Communist Party. In 1949, although America was still a vibrant democracy, but the leaders of the Communist Party decided it was on the verge of becoming a fascist state. Their reason for drawing this conclusion was the fact that 11 of their top leaders had been convicted under the Smith Act for running a conspiratorial organization whose goal was the overthrow of the government. They responded to the convictions by sending a cadre of leaders to hide out in the Sierras and other locations to be ready when the fascist roundup came, so that they could run the Party and carry out a resistance from the “underground.” The round up never took place but several years later the Smith Act was declared unconstitutional and the convicted Party leaders who were still in jail were released.
In other words, the disappearance of the Communist leaders did not just “happen,” as Aptheker suggests. Nor was it triggered by a real threat. It was the result of a paranoid fantasy shared by the Party’s own leadership. It was a problem entirely self-created. Herbert Aptheker was among those who ordered other fathers to leave their young children, as it turned out for many years, for reasons that were entirely imaginary. America was not and did not become a “fascist” state; Communists were never rounded up as Herbert Aptheker and other Party leaders predicted, and only a few were ever tried or sentenced despite the fact that they were leaders of an organization whose goal was the overthrow of the government and included a spy apparatus serving America’s Soviet enemy. Even now, nearly 60 years later, when these facts are well known, Bettina Aptheker has nothing to say about them. Nor is she able to reflect on the fact that her parents chose to be Bolsheviks in democratic America and to pledge their allegiance to a totalitarian country hostile to their own, and how this might have affected the environment of secrecy and fear in which she was brought up.
The failure to understand the role that choice played in her family’s destiny is a flaw not only in her understanding of what happened to them but in her understanding of herself. It is an early sign in her book of an inability to make a complete break with the illusions of her past.
Bettina Aptheker arrived in Berkeley in 1963, as the radical upheavals of the decade were getting under way. She was 18 and already a member of the Party, whose significance she describes in these terms: “While I very much believed in the humanitarian, peace and social justice goals of the Communist Party, the party also represented my extended family, my root moorings.”
Her parents had driven from New York to California, where they deposited her in the home of Max and Evelyn Martin until she could find her own place. The Martins had a daughter only a year older than she was. Max Martin was the chairman of the Northern California branch of the Communist Party, and the Martin home was “a hub of Communist Party life in the Bay Area.” (These are obviously not their real names, although Aptheker’s book only hints at this in small print at the bottom of the copyright page. They are concealed for reasons which will become apparent shortly. On the other hand, they are not really concealed since the leader of the Northern California branch of the Communist Party was a publicly known figure, Mickey Lima. The easily pierced fiction is a transparent attempt by Aptheker to demonstrate her good intentions. While in fact she is destroying reputations, she has made – in her own eyes at least – a good faith effort to protect them.)
Shortly after she found her own place less than two miles from the Martins, she began a relationship with Jack Kurzweil, who would later become her husband but was then merely a boyfriend. When the relationship ended, she turned to Raul Hernandez, a 30-year-old parolee who had spent 10 years in San Quentin and had been befriended by the Martins, who had taken him into their household for a few months on his release. Bettina began a romance with Hernandez “enacting a fantasy loosely based on the forbidden love of the Broadway musical West Side Story.” Evelyn, only slightly wiser than the now 19-year-old Aptheker, became concerned. She took Bettina aside and said to her: “I love you. I want you to find someone whose eyes still have light in them.”
Bettina slept with Hernandez only once, but it was enough to get her pregnant. At the time abortions were still illegal. She could not tell her parents. In the difficult bind in which she had landed herself, she was rescued by the Martins, who located an abortion clinic in Tijuana and gave her the $200 she needed to terminate the pregnancy. She continued to be friends with Hernandez until he violated his parole and was returned to prison.
As she entered her second year at Berkeley, Aptheker immersed herself in political activities connected to the Party and had the appearance of a person increasingly in command. But the person behind the political mask was in serious trouble: “Swinging from one emotional extreme to another, I was in a constant state of anxiety. Despair dogged me.” She would drive around Berkeley at night alone, “weeping and suicidal.” In her room she would sometimes “work a knife into my stomach or my leg as I had done in childhood, now occasionally drawing blood.”
She was inept socially – except as a political activist – and felt herself “deformed.” She felt her breasts were too small and malformed. A giant schism was developing in the foundations of her being. “In the public world, I was Herbert Aptheker’s daughter, an organizer, visible on campus. In my interior world, I was lonely, confused, anxious. I felt crazy at times because I couldn’t reconcile the two realities.”
In this vulnerable situation she began an affair with the husband of the woman whose second daughter she had become. Bettina had come to think of Max Martin as “my West Coast father” and had told him so. The two of them regularly drove together to Party meetings, and he coached her on becoming a future Party leader. But one late night, “Max didn’t just drop me off at my cottage as usual. Instead he came in, continuing the political talk.” Then, “he drew me to him, kissed me, caressed me.” She resisted him, but half-heartedly. She describes her acquiescence in these peculiar but revealing terms: “I became passive, completely passive, the way they instructed us to be when the police came during a demonstration. I went limp.” But of course she was not being arrested or subdued by force, yet her role – her choice, her will in this matter – remains opaque to her 40 years later.
The post-political meeting trysts continued, and became sexual, with Max putting his hand down her pants. They continued for a year. “I was not in love with Max; I was not afraid of him. But I felt deep shame about what we were doing, afraid that I would be found out, and that it was a terrible betrayal to Evelyn.” And so it was. But this is a side of herself, the active, aggressive dimension of her character that she never is able to confront.
Into the midst of these intimate proceedings, her political realities intrude. One day there is a knock at her door and she opens it to find an FBI man making inquiries. She refuses to let him in. He tells her it would make it a lot easier if she cooperated with him “I will never cooperate with you,” she says and shuts the door on him, ending the matter (the threat being obviously idle and never followed up). This is the bold face of the political warrior. But inside, she now relives her childhood trauma in the world her political choices have created. “Given the Party’s semi-legal status and the continual harassment of party members,” the FBI, she reasons, must know about her and Max. “That they should know about my most private of shames, that they might use it, made me want to vomit. I thought seriously about suicide.”
Reflecting on matters afterwards, she became increasingly paranoid about the unseen presence of the FBI. “Somehow we were going to be set up, the Party crucified.” To protect the Party, she decided she had to end her sexual encounters with Max, and that she needed an intervention since she has been unable to do it herself. On the other hand she has no serious thoughts about this fact, which would lead her to confront her adult choices and the active role she played in the conduct of the affair. She further concluded that the Party would be no help. Thus, for political reasons, she decided the only way to prevail on Max to end the affair was to keep it “within the family” – that is, within her new family of Max, Evelyn, and their daughter, Meredith. Even now, 40 years later, she has no comment to make on the decision to sacrifice the Martin family for the Party, even though the entire drama is a chilling reprise of her own primal scene.
Naturally, Max could not be the check on himself, and Meredith was only a year older than she was. So without further reflection – without threatening Max with the revelation of their secret if he did not stop – she told Evelyn instead. “And it was awful.”
Of course, it was awful. What did she expect? In the actual moment of the revelation, moreover, she made it even worse, giving the knife an extra twist: “I blurted it out. ‘Max is making love to me.’ Those six words were all I spoke.” Actually, six misleading words since, by her own account, “Nothing was ever consummated.” The wounded Evelyn throws her out and stops speaking to her. The deceiving father denies the affair and tells her: “Evelyn couldn’t understand why you want to hurt her like that.”
Aptheker’s failure to interrogate herself over this second and even more brutal betrayal of her friend is striking. No less so is the cursory gesture she makes towards assuming any responsibility for the affair before she brushes even this aside in favor of a plea of innocence: “I felt responsible for what was going on between us, but I knew I had not encouraged him, and that I had pleaded with him to stop.” (Emphasis added.)
She had continued sexual encounters with the husband of a woman who considered her a daughter and had done so for a year, yet she had not encouraged him? This mea exculpa is offered not as the alibi of a 19- or 20 year-old youth, but as the considered reflection of a 58-year old-woman, who has been married and divorced and is herself a mother. It is an unwitting commentary on her narcissism and on how deeply wedded to her self-image as a victim she still is, even as she describes herself as a “feminist rebel.” It is the one constant theme of her life.
And of her politics. Months later, Aptheker found herself in the leadership of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, the first seizure of a university administration building by campus radicals and the opening event of a decade of disruptions. Her leadership position was a function of her membership in the DuBois Club, a campus front for the Communist Party and to the deference paid within the Club to her important Communist father. As the DuBois club spokesman, she was its representative on the steering committee of the “United Front” which the campus Left had formed to pursue its protest. “United Front” was itself a Communist term of art, and thanks to the ham-handed response of the FBI and the anti-Communist groups who attempted to taint the Free Speech Movement with Aptheker’s presence, she became the most prominent figure of the Free Speech Movement after its actual leader, Mario Savio.
The contrived prominence of a Communist in the leadership of the Free Speech Movement, marked a watershed moment in what can now be seen as the decade-long transformation of the New Left into a version of the Left of the past. Following the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolution and the Kremlin’s admission of Stalin’s crimes, many Communists had left the Party and joined with younger progressives who felt that it had betrayed the cause. But in Aptheker’s boomer generation, the political iconography had already shifted. Instead of being seen as collaborators with the most oppressive regime in history, Communists like Aptheker were already being embraced as victims of American “repression.” The elevation of Aptheker by the Berkeley radicals was a typically rebellious gesture to campus authorities. Better red than thou. Solidarity with the “victims” of McCarthyism was a comfortable fantasy for a Free Speech movement, which framed its own political issue with a characteristic, devious sleight-of-hand.
The Free Speech protests were actually not over the suppression of speech, which would have been unconstitutional. They were protests of a long-standing rule that barred political groups from conducting their organizational activities on university grounds. Their success paved the way for campus activists to use university facilities as a political platform. Also eliminated was the requirement that university forums on controversial issues should include more than one side of an argument. Thus began the radicalization of American universities and the intrusion of political agendas into the academic curriculum.
As an appointed leader of this campaign, Aptheker emerged as a major campus figure both on the Berkeley campus and nationally as well. Still only in her mid-twenties, the hectoring public leader could not have appeared more different from the unhappy, confused, self-accusing and suicidal private self her memoir describes. Addressing a throng of protesters on the Berkeley campus, she felt confident and happy: “I could not see the people in the crowd, but I could feel their energy. I went through the points I had rehearsed and then I quoted a line from Frederick Douglass: ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand.’ A bellow of approval rolled across the plaza. In that moment, the crowd’s energy surged through me like an electric current. The tension in my legs disappeared. I felt suddenly grounded, strong, uplifted, and so moved I thought I would weep…The next day I was over at San Francisco State [University] for a noon rally they had organized to support us. When I spoke, I experienced the same sense of strength and a deep well of happiness.”
After the Berkeley protest, Aptheker married her previous boyfriend and fellow Party member, Jack Kurzweil, and became pregnant by him. “Ours was a marriage of mutual relief and refuge,” is how she describes their relationship. He was seeking entrée into the inner circles of their Communist life. He provided her with “a sanctuary from sexual pursuit, and at least the illusion of heterosexual normality.” In her telling, however, the sanctuary was illusory and there was no relief from the demons that drove her.
Whatever marital life the couple enjoyed was squeezed between their political activities, now absorbed by the Left’s war against the Vietnam war, which involved both in endless meetings and, equally consuming, her arrest and trial following the disruptions of the Free Speech Movement. She encapsulates the significant events of this period in her chapter heading, “A Wedding, A Trial and A War,” pointedly leaving out the birth of her first child, as though it were a distraction from the history for which she was now living.
All the while she maintained her secret life of illicit affairs, all involving political comrades and now including women. One of these romantic attachments was Martha Kirkland, an antiwar activist whom she would meet at the rallies which demanded her presence all over the country to protest America’s war against the Communists in Vietnam. It was the perfect alibi for an affair for a Communist husband who was left behind to take care of home and child. In this maelstrom of politics, marital betrayal and forbidden sexuality, the domesticity of her Berkeley household began to seem problematic at best. Christmas – the quintessential family holiday – was spent one year with her lover Martha and Martha’s parents in Illinois, while another occasion saw her take Martha back to Brooklyn to meet her own mother and father.
During these extra-marital trysts, Aptheker would sometimes be overwhelmed by panic and feelings of “self-revulsion.” But not because of her betrayal of husband and home – a life whose reality she second guesses with scare quotes: “Once back in my ‘real’ life in Berkeley and away from Martha, I would be consumed with guilt – not for having been unfaithful to my husband, but for having indulged what I construed as my ‘baser’ self.” In a noteworthy understatement she continues, “I did not know how to hold or balance the contradictions in my life,” and summarizes: “I was a married lesbian, having a celibate but passionate relationship with one woman in Berkeley, and a sexual liaison with another in Chicago.”
Along with the personal chaos, her encounters with the Katzenjammer FBI continue to mark and upend her life. Opening her suitcase to unpack for an antiwar demonstration in Washington, she discovers a layer of pornographic photos of women on top of her clothes. This strikes fear into her marrow, because it tells her that the FBI knows about her lesbian affair and leads immediately to two large decisions. She terminates the romance with Martha (Party before ‘family’ once again) and determines to make her family seem more “real.” Here is how she puts it: “I went home to Berkeley and asked Jack what he thought about having a baby.”
Jack agrees and they become pregnant. However, she is still facing jail time for her role in the Berkeley protests. In an advanced stage of pregnancy she enters Santa Rita prison and begins bleeding so profusely that she is sent to the prison hospital where she is raped.
None of these experiences, traumas and life passages affect her forward motion or cause her to reflect on the possible conflict between her choices – a “revolutionary” career on the one hand, with the risks and perils that entailed and a family life on the other. Her child, Joshua, is born on Thursday, October 19, 1967. Three days earlier she had marched in an antiwar protest in Oakland. On Wednesday morning, she went into labor. In the afternoon, someone called to ask her to speak at an anti-Vietnam demonstration on Thursday. “I hesitated before saying no….”
This is a woman detached from the essential gravities of her own existence. Even her political life, focused on the pursuit of her father’s mission, remain unexamined. At 22, she is elevated to the steering committee of the revolution – a leadership position in the national Party. Of this post she writes: “I was oblivious to the responsibility membership in the National Committee implied, to the policies we were setting or endorsing, especially in the international arena. All that mattered to me was my personal achievement as heir to the Aptheker covenant.” But for her the covenant has become the scaffolding keeping her from a precipitous fall into the chaos at the center of her being.
In her appearances before campus audiences, savvy New Leftists ask her about the totalitarian commitment that defines her political identity. Looking back on these moments, she writes: “It was a terrible irony that while I was heralded as a leader of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, I simultaneously justified the Communist suppression of freedom of speech and freedom of the press in the Soviet Union, East Germany, Hungary and elsewhere. I attribute this imprinting to the way I survived my childhood, the sexual abuse in particular: I dissociated from myself and merged with my father, making us one, indivisible.”
But ducks are “imprinted,” not people. This is less an explanation of her behavior than a sign of her continuing bad faith. Elsewhere, Aptheker provides a description of her state of mind, which acknowledges the psychological root of her denial: “In 1965, after I was married, living in Berkeley, and a member of the Party, my husband, who was also a Communist, tried to talk to me about the atrocities committed by Stalin. Almost reflexively I shouted at him to stop and became hysterical. I felt I was holding off a huge wave that would sweep me out to sea and to a certain death. Acknowledging the reality of Stalin felt as though it would crack the structure of my Communist belief system, and with it my loyalty to my father and mother and the world I knew. It terrified me.”
Writing 17 years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, it is easy for her to separate herself from the Soviet Union, once the mecca of her political faith. But it was not just those who were Communists or sexually abused by Herbert Aptheker who maintained a double standard in regard to the Soviet Union at the time. Moreover, by her own account, Aptheker was actually to differentiate her politics from her father’s during the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Unlike the Hungarian tragedy, when a majority of the Party had left in disgust, this time only three members of the Party’s 120-member National Committee refused to support the Soviet aggression. Despite the fact that her father had been the most famous defender of the intervention in Hungary, she was one. Short of leaving the Party, it would be hard to imagine a sharper slap at her father’s Party image than this. Failing to pursue the implications of this independence and her servility on other occasions is another marker of Aptheker’s failure to honestly confront her political choices.
Six weeks after the arrival of her firstborn, she returns to “a full complement of political work.” Four months after that she is beset with symptoms she calls a “nervous breakdown.” She ascribes the breakdown to the rape in the prison hospital, “the FBI harassment” and the still unremembered molestation by her father. She begins cutting herself again, leaving the details vague, describes her psychological symptoms as “acute paranoia” and depression, and attempts suicide or claims to:
I thought seriously about suicide. My mind would spin into a vicious self-loathing: I am so perverted, so damaged, so evil, I should kill myself to protect others from being contaminated. [Emphasis in original.] One day I almost shot myself to death. I was acting out a suicide fantasy. I did not realize that the rifle, Jack’s old 30-ought-6, was loaded. I was lying on the floor with the rifle resting along the length of my body. It was pointed at my head. A second before I squeezed the trigger I moved the barrel. The sound of the shot reverberated through our small house. The bullet tore a mammoth hole in the wall of my study. Joshua, in his crib in the bedroom, slept….
As in so many of her descriptions of the melodramatic traumas she has undergone, this one raises troubling questions. She claims she did not realize the gun was loaded, yet she is concerned enough about an unloaded gun to move the barrel away from her head before pulling the trigger. This does not suggest a serious attempt to kill oneself; it is more of a gesture at suicide, an attempt to draw sympathy to oneself as a victim, while venting rage at those closest for not caring enough. The more obvious theme of these melodramas is of angers displaced – the fury of a woman who is not without injury, but who refuses, even in retrospect, to recognize her aggressions towards others – towards parents, towards friends, towards figures of authority. When she recounts these acts of emotional violence against friends and intimates, she invariably presents them as cries of the powerless and expressions of impotent but justified rage.
It is this recurrent pattern that links the personal and the political in Bettina Aptheker’s radical life. Victimhood as a status, and displaced aggression as social justice, are the essential themes of Aptheker’s politics. “This was my way of working out the relationship between the Marxist (social conditions) and the feminist (women’s consciousness and cultures)…I wanted us to stop blaming ourselves for the violence in our lives, the alcoholism and drugs that crippled us and our children, the narcissism and indulgence that sapped our strength…I wanted us to distinguish between individual failings and weaknesses (for which we can certainly be held personally accountable) and the social conditions of patriarchy, racism, poverty, and cultural genocide that produced them.” The logic is both self-aggrandizing and self-ratifying: if social injustice produces our individual failings, “we” can hardly be held accountable for them.
These elements of her radicalism are manifest in a defining series of events in Aptheker’s Party career revolving around two attempts to free George Jackson, a black criminal and political radical on trial for the murder of a Soledad prison guard. The first led to the trial of Aptheker’s childhood friend and Communist Party comrade Angela Davis for abetting the escape plan. Aptheker assisted in Davis’s court defense and wrote a book about her trial. She presents escape attempts as analogous to slave revolts and the case against Davis as an attempted lynching – the product of “a frenzy of racist and anti-Communist hatred.” These are familiar tropes of the melodramas which dominate her political imagination.
The facts tell a different story. George Jackson had been incarcerated in Soledad prison for committing five armed robberies (not one as she claims). He was given an indeterminate sentence and had already spent 10 years in prison when the murder occurred. This was not because was helpless and black as Aptheker suggests, but because he had become a violent gang leader in prison, committing repeated criminal acts which led to extensions of his sentence. The political radicalism of the Sixties penetrated the prison yard and Jackson joined the Black Panther Party after meeting its leader Huey Newton in jail. He became an international celebrity when Newton’s radical attorney, Fay Stender, edited his prison letters and had them published under the title Soledad Brother. He became the lover of Angela Davis, by then the Communist Party’s most famous personality, and they were eventually secretly married. While serving time in Soledad, Jackson became embroiled in a conflict over the shooting of an inmate. In a retaliation for the shooting, a guard was thrown over a third tier railing and fell to his death. Jackson, who most probably committed the murder, was transferred with two associates to San Quentin prison to stand trial.
On August 3, 1970, Jackson’s 17-year-old brother Jonathan entered a Marin County courthouse where a trial involving three maximum security felons was in progress. The younger Jackson brought with him an arsenal of weapons, which he handed to the defendants who then took the judge, the prosecutor, and a juror hostage. A loaded shotgun was taped under the Judge’s chin. The plan was to hijack a plane to Cuba and trade the hostages for George Jackson’s freedom. These facts, along with Angela Davis’s secret marriage to Jackson, have been established in books written about the case by other leftists, who were Jackson supporters and interviewed the parties involved. But they are missing in Aptheker’s account because they confound her myth of innocence and irrational persecution. Hiding Davis’s passionate attachment to Jackson which have provided a motive for her complicity in the crime was a key element in her legal defense.
During the hostage taking a shootout occurred, and Jackson and two of the felons were killed along with the judge whose head was blown off when the shotgun taped to his chin discharged. Davis was linked to the case – not because she was a Communist or an African American, as Aptheker asserts – but because two days before the attempt she had purchased the shotgun and other weapons that were part of the arsenal Jonathan Jackson brought into the courtroom. After the shootout, Davis went into hiding and became the subject of a nationwide manhunt for months until the FBI found her. She was charged with conspiracy, kidnapping, and murder.
Internally, even leaders of the Communist Party, recognized that these events did not add up to the radical myth that Aptheker and Davis (and the New Left generally) were making of it. Behind closed doors, members of the Party’s national committee wanted the Party “to separate itself entirely from Angela,” Aptheker tells us, “and a few actually, (privately) advocated her expulsion on the grounds that she was a terrorist.”
But Aptheker insisted (and insists to this day) that the event be viewed as a rebellion of the oppressed. At a Berkeley protest she helped to organize at the height of the furor, she writes, “I analyzed Jonathan’s action with particular reference to the long history of African American resistance. I drew a parallel between the response of slave owners to slave rebellions, and the modern-day FBI response to these prisoners’ bid for freedom.” Her speech was published in the National Guardian and widely circulated in the left. The author of American Negro Slave Revolts agreed with her assessment: “Drawing on his knowledge of slave revolts and African American history in general, [my father] wrote several articles and spoke at ‘Free Angela’ events.”
Aptheker helped to organize the “National United Committee to Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners,” which she saw as a form of personal therapy, focusing the inner rage she felt and channeling it against America’s new slave-owners and their agents: “I threw myself into this work with a passion I had not felt since the Free Speech Movement. In part I was haunted by the memory of the Rosenbergs’ execution. Since my breakdown three years earlier, I was still extremely fragile.” She was no longer taking the tranquilizers her doctor had prescribed and had undergone no therapy. Her therapy was the fight: “The intimacy and trust Angela and I developed [in the course of the defense] were sources of great healing for me, especially in my continued bouts of depression and paranoia. I was fighting for Angela’s life, but she helped me to save my own.”
Though Aptheker does not say so, this form of “therapy” depended entirely on maintaining the myth of innocence and victimization, and the justified rage that accompanied it, which gave her both confidence and the feeling of power. How far she and her political comrades would go to re-construe events to preserve the paradigm that fueled their indignation and made their politics work are revealed in her account of the escape attempt which occurred at San Quentin on the anniversary of Jonathan’s assault.
In August 1971, a leftist smuggled a gun into San Quentin and delivered it to George Jackson. In consort with six other maximum security inmates, Jackson took three guards hostage, tied them up and slit their throats. He was then shot by a prison tower guard as he raced towards the wall to escape. Aptheker describes this episode as the “murder” and “assassination” of George Jackson. She concludes her account of the five-year effort to apprehend and prosecute criminals involved in these bloody episodes with these words: “The Soledad Brothers case, which had propelled such an eruption of government violence and personal tragedy, was finally over.” (Emphasis added.) It was an epitome of the way she viewed the world.
The reserve of the Party towards the Davis-Jackson drama reflected its fossilized condition. For Party stalwarts, the pivotal social oppression was still Marx’s working class, the agent of revolutionary change. The New Left had extended the model of Marxist oppression to other social actors – women, blacks, gays. Identity politics replaced class politics, as the New Left lionized revolutionary “vanguards” like the Black Panther Party to which Jackson belonged. Fusing these elements in the charisma of a single individual, Jackson drama seized the imagination of the New Left and his cause became a movement touchstone. Aptheker described the events as a “watershed in my life.”
In 1976, as a direct consequence of the schism between these radical visions, Aptheker and Franklin Alexander, who was the leader of the “Free Angela Davis Committee,” were removed from the Party leadership for failing to follow the Party line. When she protested her removal to Max Martin (with whom political imperatives had forced a reconciliation) he patted her on the head and said she was “too individualistic.” When she confronted her father, he merely “cleared his throat.” To the daughter this was the familiar sign: the Party before family: “What I had always thought was true: I was expendable to him. I could be jettisoned if the Party required this of him.” The injustice galled her: “He had shared the same position on the Marin prisoners’ revolt as Angela and I had. I felt the Party had betrayed me. I was taking the fall for Angela and for my father, both of whom were too important and too famous to be renounced or rebuked.”
The trial ended in an acquittal for Davis in part because of the difficulty the prosecution had in establishing in court the real connections between Davis and Jackson, and in part because the jury was stacked with political sympathizers like Mary Timothy, an anti-Vietnam activist who later became Aptheker’s love interest. The Party refrained from censoring the book she wrote about the trial, because it had Davis’s imprimatur. The Nobel Prize winning Toni Morrison, a supporter of the Free Angela Davis campaign and a friend of Aptheker’s, tried to get her a commercial publisher to no avail, and it was published by International Publishers, the Party’s own press. The launch party was held at San Jose State, where her husband Jack was now a professor. Angela Davis and Maya Angelou, another political supporter, were the main speakers. “Hundreds of people attended, including Mary Timothy and several other jurors from Angela’s trial.”
In 1974, after the publication of her book, Aptheker had joined a major migration of radical activists from the streets of protest to the faculties of American universities. She signed up for a masters program at San Jose State in “speech-communication,” one of the fields leftists were busily re-defining to accommodate their political agendas. Because other leftists had preceded her, the department offered her a job as well, “a position as a ‘graduate teaching associate,’ a title they invented for me since there were no provisions for teaching assistantships at the universities.” While some university officials viewed her arrest record and non-scholarly career skeptically and opposed her appointment, others were “enthusiastic about my arrival,” and with the help of the Communist Party’s civil liberties lawyer they prevailed. She received her masters in June 1976 and began teaching a course on the “History of Black Women,” which was jointly offered by two of the politicized departments radicals had recently created, Women’s Studies and Afro-American Studies.
At the end of the Davis trial she began an intense but unconsummated affair with Mary Timothy, a married woman and non-Party leftist who had been a secret ally of the defense. Aptheker wanted the relationship to be sexual but the older Timothy, who was suffering from a terminal cancer, kept the affair Platonic to protect her from a greater loss. “It was my first close friendship with someone who was not in any way associated with the Communist Party.” Her relationship with Mary Timothy introduced Aptheker to the idea that being a lesbian was compatible with left-wing politics, and a major internal conflict was resolved.
Two years earlier, her marriage to Jack Kurzweil had begun disintegrating, and the two half-heartedly sought counseling with a politically compatible therapist. After a six-week separation in New York with her parents, she returned to California in the fall of 1974 resolved to make her marriage work and to get herself pregnant. In addition to entering graduate school she also agreed to become the chair of the Communist Party in Santa Clara County. “I was so busy, I didn’t have time to think.”
In January a daughter, Jennifer, was born. Three years later Mary Timothy died from breast cancer, and Aptheker told her husband she was divorcing him. They had been married for 13 years. “When I asked Jack for a divorce in Februrary 1978, three weeks after Mary’s death, he started to cry. By this time I was too angry to allow other emotions to emerge. A steel door had closed over my heart.” It does not seem from her account that this anger had anything to do with her husband, or that the decision to leave him was the consequence of any change in their relationship or any action on his part. The death of the woman she loved was a more obvious catalyst. Of her decision to break up her family, she writes: “We had been married for thirteen years, and I felt like my life was just beginning. I didn’t know if I could live openly as a lesbian, but I was alive with new ideas, caught up in the strength of the women’s movement.”
For the first time in her life she began to allow herself to absorb texts by writers who were not on the Party’s list of approved authors. At the same time, she was careful to limit the range of her interest to the works of radical feminists, who applied a Marxist paradigm to gender issues and whom the Women’s Studies movement approved. Tracts like Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectics of Sex and Juliet Mitchell’s Women: The Longest Revolution took their place beside Frederick Engels’ The Origins of Private Property, the Family and the State, on her shelf of canonical texts.
In the new orthodoxy she had embraced, a mythical “patriarchy” took precedence over the Marxist ruling class as the dominant social evil without entirely displacing it. In her new radical vision, women now joined the working class as a fundamental element in the axis of social “oppression” and thus in the messianic quest for an earthly redemption. The Women’s Studies class she taught was called “Sex and Power,” and its agenda was to instill in her students the thrilling doctrines she had just discovered: “We had long discussions about sexism in language, about how women were oppressed as a group, about how violence affected women’s lives, and about race and class as part of interconnected systems of domination.” She had found a way to integrate her previous ideological existence with the sexual longings she had kept so long in the closet of her secret life, along with a new platform for her political mission.
The timing was propitious. The entrenchment of the radicals and their movement in departments like Women’s Studies had advanced far enough to offer her a career opportunity through which she could financially support her new independence. She applied for a job at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The Santa Cruz region, south of San Francisco, was an area she was attracted to because of its large lesbian community. In her interview with the university she discovered just how radicalized it had become from the traditional academic procedures she was used to: “This process was striking in the way it put collective and non-hierarchical politics into practice.”
To pursue a university career she would need a Ph.D. credential, so she enrolled in the “History of Consciousness” graduate program, which had been created by the historian Page Smith, as he told an interviewer, in order “to prove the Ph.D. was a fraud.” Aptheker’s political alter ego, Angela Davis, was already a professor on the faculty and, as if, to validate Smith’s hypothesis, the department awarded the cocaine-addicted felon and Black Panther leader, Huey Newton, a doctorate for a self-serving political tract titled, “War Against the Panthers: Repression in America.” In Aptheker’s own description, the “History of Consciousness” major was “an interdisciplinary program with an emphasis in twentieth century radical and Marxist philosophies.”
The academic level of its curriculum in Marxism can be gauged by Aptheker’s account of the program after she had entered it: “I was one of only two or three students in our seminar who had actually read Marx, and I became a sort of expert-in-residence. Everyone, even [Professor] Hayden White and [Professor] Jim [Clifford], seemed to find Marx either indecipherable or to reduce his work to purely economic terms – that is, that Marxism could explain the exploitation of the workers in basic industry and how profits were made, but not much else.”
This political curriculum suited her: “I was not interested in learning one more time what I saw as the patriarchal lineage of American historians.” In the statement of purpose the department required her to file in order to be accepted into the program she explained that she wanted to “tease the juxtaposition of Marxism and feminism into a unified theory of liberation.”
She had also applied to Stanford University’s (also radicalized) Education Department, and both faculties liked her attitude and provided her with “very generous financial offers for scholarships and employment,” but Santa Cruz was her choice. Without fully realizing its implications she had joined a new radical movement and institution, and integrated her political and professional careers.
Now her quest for a unified path to social and personal liberation set her on a collision course with her father and her Party. Her book on the Davis trial had been the best-selling title for International Publishers, the official Party press, and her editor wanted another. She offered him a collection of pieces which was eventually published as Women’s Legacy: Essays on Race, Sex and Class in American History – a contribution to her new radical enterprise: “In writing Woman’s Legacy I was, in fact, seeking to put Marxism and feminism into a unified theory of oppression and liberation – just as in my graduate school I’d said I’d hoped to do…By this time…I no longer saw class as the principal or only instrument of oppression upon which all others rested. I was working out ideas about systems of domination based on race, sex, and class which were interdependent and interlocking….” What she was working on was the standard ideological curriculum of radicalized Women’s Studies Departments at hundreds of universities across the country.
Women’s Legacy was standard Communist fare, drawing mainly on writers who were Party-approved, and reflecting in its arguments the coarse syntax of the Party’s engagements with opponents. One of Aptheker’s chapters, for example, was on the famous Moynihan report on the plight of the Black family, which was written by the distinguished social scientist Daniel Patrick Moynihan for the liberal Johnson administration. Moynihan presciently warned that rising out-of-wedlock births in lower black communities and the lack of fathers in their homes would have serious social consequences. Aptheker did not actually discuss the contents of Moynihan’s report but dismissed it absurdly as a call “for the introduction of patriarchal relations in the Black community” and described it in terms reminiscent of her father’s brutal polemics: “The Moynihan doctrine was neither a historical accident nor the innocent blunder of a stupid man. In represented a necessary judgment in racist/male supremacist ideology to correspond to the actual shift of Black women in society.”
However, in writing the book’s sixth chapter on domestic labor, Aptheker realized she might have a problem. “I could not hold on to the orthodox formulations of Marxism and still see women as the co-equals of men in the making of history.” Pursuing her new feminist interests, she had come to the conclusion that Marx and Engels were “sexists.” Her task was to make them feminists as well: “Those of us working to bring Marxism and feminism together in theory argued that…household labor may have had a loving aspect, but it also made possible the re-production of the working class upon which the whole economic system of capitalism depended. This constituted, we argued, a co-equal form of exploitation.” (Emphasis in original.)
To outsiders, re-inventing a bankrupt theory like Marxism in the last years of the world Communist debacle may have seemed bizarrely anachronistic. But in the politicized university world and fields such Women’s Studies it was viewed as avant garde. To the Communist Party, which still clung to the clichés of Stalinist orthodoxy, however, it was anything but. Just before Aptheker’s book was to be sent to press, she got a two-and-a-half-page letter from a member of the Party’s “National Commission on Women,” which informed her: “It is clear that you have developed some basic differences with the Party, and I should add, with Marxist-Leninist theory, on the source and nature of women’s oppression under capitalism.”
It is a testament to Aptheker’s continuing ideological myopia and to her mind-boggling inability to view herself at any sort of a distance that she should be shocked to learn – the year is 1979 – that the Communist Party might censor views it deemed ideologically impure: “I was in complete turmoil over her letter. I had expected controversy over the chapter on domestic labor, but I had not expected a broadside like this, which dismissed all of the research I had done and decreed what constituted Marxism-Leninism.”
It is difficult to understand how such a sentence could be written. After all, it was the Communist Party that had invented the “purge” – a purification process for anyone in the Party who strayed from its doctrinal truth. For half-a-century, Communist parties had been expelling and indeed murdering millions of dissenters from the party line for this very transgression. This was the political tradition Aptheker was born to and had thrived in, and whose strictures she herself had enforced, and yet despite her self-conceived strides towards “liberation,” she was stunned at the age of 37 to find that it was.
The refusal of her political comrades to publish her book with its new discoveries was personally devastating. It threw her into “the worst psychological state I’d been in since my nervous breakdown at twenty-three.” She “felt a sense of overwhelming betrayal by my Party.” In this crisis, her father was generous in his support, announcing that he would never publish another book under the Party imprint. As she comments, this was “an extraordinary gesture.” Yet, this fact does not lead her to re-examine her standard excuse for swallowing the Party’s impossible line on Czechoslovakia after she had voted against it because she feared his displeasure.
A year later, on October 12, 1981, she resigned from the Party. Even then, she delayed the move more than year, refraining from making a public statement that might give aid and comfort to the enemy camp. Specifically, she wanted to avoid any move that would be interpreted as a protest against some action taken by the Soviet Union. She did not want to be “hostile to the Communist Party” and a “renegade” – a class of individuals whom her father and all the faithful despised. She regarded herself as “still a revolutionary. A good person.”
On hearing the news of his daughter’s break with the Party, Herbert Aptheker become semi-hysterical, shouting at her as he had never done, before until his wife intervened: “Herbert that’s enough.” Then, in what his daughter describes as a voice hoarse with regret, he said: “The Soviet comrades will never understand it. Never!” The daughter, unable throughout to take in a point of reference other than her own, comments: “It sounded crazy. Why would the Soviet comrades care about what I did?” But of course what they cared about was Herbert Aptheker, the Party’s lion and “leading theoretician,” who could not keep his own daughter in line.
The political tract that the Party rejected was immediately bought by the University of Massachussetts Press, whose director, Leone Stein, was a friend of Herbert Aptheker and had overseen the publication of his edition of the correspondence of W.E.B. DuBois. Thus, manuscript that destroyed her Party career became a stepping-stone in Bettina Aptheker’s academic career. Although little more than a collection of low-grade political essays, the manuscript had been read by Hayden White, a member of her dissertation committee, who proposed that she submit it as her doctoral thesis, which she did.
She now had the academic credential – or the appearance of an academic credential – needed to take her place on the university faculty and shape the Women Studies program at Santa Cruz, which was not yet approved as a full-fledged curriculum or department of its own. As her first teaching assignment, she was offered the course, “Introduction to Women’s Studies,” which had been previously taught by another Berkeley Marxist, Barbara Epstein. Employing her blunt instrument approach to all things intellectual, Aptheker immediately converted her class into a political cell meeting: “I redesigned the curriculum and retitled it ‘Introduction to Feminism,’ making it more overtly political, and taught the class in the context of the women’s movement.” Most of her students “were activists themselves.” Nothing remotely academic or scholarly entered her lesson plan: “Teaching became a form of political activism for me, replacing the years of dogged meetings and intrepid organizing with the immediacy of a liberatory practice.…”
Throughout the 1980s, the Women’s Studies program at UC-Santa Cruz was still not a department and had to depend on courses that were taught by faculty radicals who had positions in other liberal arts departments. Then, in 1986, Aptheker was offered a position as the first Women’s Studies professor. She hesitated, if only briefly, before accepting the post because of the actual academic responsibilities it seemed to entail. “I was not sure I wanted a tenure track position at the university with all that that implied about serving on faculty committees, publishing under pressure and attending scholarly conferences.” But her radical faculty sponsors urged it on her. Marge Frantz, a lecturer in American studies and, like Aptheker, a former Bay Area Communist, advised her: “It’s your revolutionary duty!” She took the job, and in 1996, thanks to a political campaign which Aptheker helped organize, Women’s Studies became a full-fledged faculty, later to be renamed the Department of Feminist Studies.
While Aptheker was reconstituting her political platform, she was also re-organizing her personal path, which she describes in these terms: “Now that I had broken from the Party and [therefore] from [my father], I needed another person with whom to merge.” Merging – it was an odd but revealing way for someone to describe such an important step in a lifelong pursuit of “liberatory” ends. The new authority figure in her life was a Midwesterner named Kate Miller, who was a Buddhist and who soon led her into a new Party to replace the one she had left, this one headed by the Dalai Lama.
Even at this late date, Aptheker’s ideological straitjacket remained too tightly laced for her to have even encountered an idea that others had drawn from the terrible history of the totalitarian party and cause that her family and devotees like them had served. The most powerful impulse of the totalitarian mind is this passion to merge; the drive for a unity that will resolve all conflicts, establish a social harmony and internal peace. And it is this drive for unity that leads inexorably to the obliteration of individuals and their messy and unruly truths.
“I was almost knocked off my feet by the power of the energy that the Dalai Lama was generating,” Aptheker writes of an appearance of the god-in-man that she attended at the San Jose Sports Arena. At the high point of the ceremony, according to Aptheker, the Dalai Lama disappeared into the universe and was no longer an individual: “He was no longer the Dalai Lama or anyone; he was just an energy field. I looked over at Kate to see her stagger a step or two before regaining her balance. We were both crying.” It was the realization – if only momentary – of the unity she had longed for all her life.
Buddhism brought her a vision of redemption but also a practical technique for releasing her anger. “I was always denying that I was angry. The process that would work to release anger was not denial and repression, but acknowledgement and dissolution…To dissolve my anger meant to forgive; to forgive meant to practice compassion.” What this compassion means to her is revealed in her description of the confrontation with her 84-year-old father over the alleged, buried family secret.
For this confrontation she chooses a moment, 17 days after the death of his wife of 62 years, while they are driving to dinner at a local restaurant. In response to what might have been taken as an innocent question, “Did I ever hurt you when you were a child?” she suddenly – after 40 years of silence – marks him with the stigma. “Yes…You were sexually inappropriate with me.” The old man replies: “This is unbelievable. I don’t mean I don’t believe you. If you say this happened. It must have happened. But it’s unbelievable to me. I have no memory of this.”
Instead of relenting, she drives the stake deeper: “It was too painful for you to remember, and it would be in contradiction to how you see yourself.” He answers: “Yes. Yes. I have no memory.” If it were true, he asks, then how she could forgive him. “I said, ‘I have already forgiven you.’ And it was true. In those few minutes his anguish had been so palpable that all of my anger had dissolved. Because, of course, I loved him. What arose for me in that moment in the car was a compassion so vast, so limitless that it embraced not only my father, but every being in the world.” (Emphasis added.)
But, of course, a compassion that embraces every being in the world embraces no particular being in the world. And of course her anger towards this individual being – her father – is not dissolved, and there are brutal scenes to come, including the moment when, cornered, he begs her to remember how they crucified the slave Nat Turner and the sacrificial Son of Man, pleading his innocence alongside the universal symbols of humanity’s victims.
Universal compassion is easy. But so is individual compassion when you have felled your victim and his wounds are mortal; when you have smashed him with a finality like this, why not forgive him, along with all the faceless and defeated entities on earth, and elsewhere, too?
Aptheker’s Buddhism is not about compassion; it is about narcissism, the endless embrace of the self-justifying self. When Aptheker takes the five vows of a bohisattva, she notes that these enjoin her not to kill, not to steal, to avoid sexual misconduct, to avoid telling lies, and to avoid drugs and alcohol. She takes the vows without realizing how hard they will be to keep, a difficulty that eventually leads her to this reflection: “I finally realized that the oath[s] like the precepts and perfections was not about having an objective standard by which to judge one’s actions; rather, it was about having an internal standard for one’s own motivations.”
In other words, good intentions are enough. Aptheker’s oaths are about excusing herself. Which is also what her memoir itself is about. Did she have bad politics and defend awful crimes? She loved her father. Did she betray and brutalize her father when he was old, and defenseless, and alone? She loved him. She forgave him.
After a life toiling in the vineyards of the totalitarian Left, the unified vision Aptheker arrives at – the marriage of class politics and identity politics and spiritual politics – is one of simple incoherence. In a climactic passage she presents her Buddha-inspired understanding of the failure of the socialist utopia to which she had dedicated the bulk of her years, otherwise hardly referred to in these lengthy reflections on her radical life. “From my experience in East Germany and at the Berlin Wall, the failure of socialism seemed no great mystery to me. Socialism had failed because of the corruption of those who led it, and those who had lived under it…I no longer believed that you could legislate altruism, which is part of what Communist governments had tried to do, according to their own formulas for social justice. Greed and jealousy, anger and hatred, power and revenge were all inherent to the human condition. Unless political action was combined with internal development to produce true compassion, it would always be seriously if not fatally compromised.”
But of course Buddhists and other religious missionaries have been trying to induce internal compassion in human beings by non-political means for millennia. The very premise of the radical worldview is the failure of religions to inspire this harmony. In taking the religious view and ascribing suffering to the human condition itself, Aptheker has unwittingly arrived at the philosophical ground of all conservative thought. If Aptheker really believed what she said – if her unified vision was about achieving an objective standard for judging people’s actions and not an internal standard for massaging her own intentions – she would be forced to repudiate her life’s work and join the conservative camp.
In fact for all the trials she has been through and the adjustments in her views, for all her attempts to let go of anger and embrace the spiritual life she is still wedded to the radical paradigm of victim and victimizer and the Day of Judgment when justice will prevail. In other words, the totalitarian worldview she inherited from her father. At a rally on the Santa Cruz campus to protest the first Gulf War, Aptheker was a featured speaker. The goal of the American-led coalition, which included the Arab states, was to reverse Saddam Hussein’s aggression in Kuwait:
“I used the occasion to test a way to combine my feminist, Marxist, and spiritual ideas. I began by conjuring the image of George Bush and Saddam Hussein as two patriarchs gearing up for war, testing their manhood like medieval knights in full body armor, wielding their mighty lances, swinging mindlessly at each other. I said it would be funny if not for the thousands and thousands of women, children, and men who would die as a consequence. I talked in some detail about the oil companies, their corporate priorities and imperial interests. I said this was not a war about freedom and democracy; it was about power and greed, and the continuation of U.S. domination in the region. With the Soviet Union gone, the United States had no military opposition to reckon with.”
The old Stalinist and accused child molester Herbert Aptheker could not have said it better.
The daughter, of course, adds a spiritual spice: “I called upon each of us to strive toward inner peace…I urged us to model ourselves after the Buddha…It felt different to talk about the war in this way.” It probably did. But the effect – inciting her students to regard their country, their patria, as villain, a killer of innocents, a global predator – was the same. Inciting their rage towards their homeland was to do what she had always done.
To read the endnotes to this article, click here.