Saturday, December 23, 2006

Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought for Free Speech, And Became a Feminist Rebel, by Bettina F. Aptheker, Seal Press, October 2006, 549 pp, Paperback.

I read this book over the last few days and it's been weighing heavily on my mind for a number of reasons. First, a summary from Publisher's Weekly:

"Now professor of feminist studies at UC-Santa Cruz, Aptheker was an activist participant in some of the major events of the '60s and '70s the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, the antiwar movement and the Angela Davis trial. As the daughter of U.S. Communist Party leader Herbert Aptheker, she was virtually a red-diaper princess, only to 'fall from grace' with the party in her late 20s. Her highly politicized New York City upbringing was one of middle class comfort, although sorely affected by McCarthyist persecution as well as sexual abuse by her father, deeply repressed memories of which she uncovered in adulthood. The author, who taught her first women's studies course in 1977, describes herself as a latecomer to the women's movement (the Communist Party considered it 'petit bourgeois'). A personal transformation paralleled the political, as her repressed lesbianism also surfaced and gradually culminated in a fulfilling long-term relationship. Though pedestrian prose and prolix detail obscure what ought to be a compelling account of events with powerful social as well as personal meaning, Aptheker's memoir (after Tapestries of Life) is a significant document for students and historians of feminism, communism and the '60s." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)

A digression:

The Seal Press was one of the first truly successful feminist presses, supporting independent booksellers throughout the country. It was sold to Avalon Publishing in 2002 and it is greatly disappointing to see that their website connects directly to amazon(cough!) for details on any book they publish. That sucks! Wilson donated the records of Seal Press to Oberlin College and you can read more about it here.

Aptheker's memoir has sparked a couple of controversies. Fellow red-diaper baby now right-wing attack dog David Horowitz has a long attack that serves to further his own agenda rather than provide an accurate portrayal of the book.

The defense of the memory of Herbert Aptheker, Bettina's father, is very interesting. Herbert Aptheker is a noted historian who dispelled the myth of the compliant slave by collecting the stories of heroic revolts by black slaves in the south. For some, the thought that this admirable historian could have been flawed in some way is anathema. And this disbelief gets expressed in some of the most condescending and sexist blather as excellently shown by this post by DeAndra found via Feral Scholar's thread about the memoir.

That's the background. Now for my own responses.

Aptheker's tales of being an activist in the Free Speech Movement (FSM) at Berkeley resonated deeply with me. Activist politics can be an amazing, invigorating experience, with moments of incredible highs and lows with bizarre twists that challenge our expectations. For instance, Aptheker was worried about coming out as a member of the Communist party during the FSM struggle so soon after the era of witch hunts which destroyed her own father's career:

"Everyone knew that I was a member of the party. I thought that perhaps it would be best if I took a less conspicuous position in the movement. These thoughts were interrupted by Mario [Savio]. Slapping his knee with glee, he said, "I've got it! Bettina should speak at the noon rally on Monday!" It was typical of Mario's tactical humor to fling the one real Communist defiantly into the administration's lap."

Aptheker was extremely active, and yet she maintained her class schedule and plowed through battles of deep depression. I also dealt with depression throughout my most activist years. I recognize that need for constant activity in order to avoid dealing with psychologically destructive thoughts and moods. It is an effective technique for postponing a confrontation with a profound medical crisis.

The memoir describes Aptheker's marriage, the birth of her two children and her participation in the upper echelons of the Communist Party, as she avoided major contradictions in her life. She found herself falling in love and having affairs with women. She found herself chafing at the Communist Party's critique of the feminist movement as "petit-bourgeois". Over time, she found the courage to come out as a lesbian and to leave the Communist Party. She met and fell in love with a woman who continues to share her life. She discovered a spiritual practice, Buddhism, that helped her live a more centered and productive life.

After many years, she recalled memories of incest that she had repressed. Some of her critics pretend that she is describing the de-bunked "recovered memory" field of psychology. What has been debunked has been the malpractice of some shitball therapists who convince people that they had been molested when they have not. This is completely different from the reality that we human beings repress memories if they are too violent or emotionally damaging.

This is another way in which I identify with Aptheker. My father was nowhere near as successful as Aptheker's. Nevertheless, dear old Dad was a college professor and administrator with power and privilege. But to those of us who had to live with him, he was a psychotic and viciously self-centered person who used whatever means necessary to achieve his goals. My mind has done me the favor of hiding some of the most unbearable aspects of dealing with his psychosis.

In particular, there is one night from when I was 13 years old that leaves a gap in memory. I was visiting my father and his third wife in upstate New York over the Xmas holidays. The three of us had gone out to dinner at a fancy restaurant. My father made a huge scene out of the fact that I had eaten my (inexpensive) vegetables while not finishing my (expensive, and therefore better) steak. I wasn't the real target of his anger. Rather, I was an excuse for him to make an obnoxious scene in public and to shame the two females accompanying him into embarrassed silence.

We left the restaurant and started the drive home when he decided he needed to stop off at the house of a "colleague." In fact, the "colleague" was a graduate student that Dad was coercing into giving him sexual favors in return for good grades. Or they were just having an affair. I don't know which is true. What I do know is that Dad decided to punish his wife by having us wait in the car while he indulged in a quickie with his latest conquest.

After a half hour or so, my stepmother told me to get out of the car and to demand that my father come out and return with us to their home. This is where my memory goes blank. Next thing I know, the three of us are driving home, my stepmother at the wheel driving excessively fast on icy roads. My father repeatedly reaches over and turns off the key to slow the car down as the two of them scream at each other.

Once we arrive home, Dad goes upstairs and gets his gun, then proceeds to tell us how we must behave in his presence. When his wife doesn't immediately approve, he beats the shit out of her. I stand in the kitchen doorway watching him crouching over her body and swinging his fists into her face. Right. Left. Right. Left.

The night seemed to last forever. To cope, I swallowed dozens of pills I found in the bathroom but managed only to make myself vomit repeatedly. The next morning, my stepmother took me aside, her face swollen beyond recognition, and apologized for her behavior and explained it was because she was having her period.

The only real clue I have to what happened during that memory lapse is my over-the-top reaction to a movie-of-the-week I watched a couple of decades later. In the movie, two children kill their father after he viciously attacked their mother. My response: guilt and nonstop tears. I suspect I somehow convinced myself that it was my responsibility, as a 13-year-old child, to incapacitate my father in some way so that the rest of that horrifying evening would never have happened.

To this day, though, my memory is blank. And I have always considered that a blessing. There are some things we just don't need to know and I give thanks to biology for allowing amnesia to protect me from whatever the hell happened that night. What I do remember is bad enough.

In this way and in others, I can identify with Aptheker and her experiences. Yes, it's true that successful men can be deeply flawed. Yes, it's true that these memories can be repressed only to be revealed later in life.

But, but…..

As Aptheker talks about her healing process, she discusses Buddhism and her process of adopting its practices. She talks about attending events in which the Dalai Lama appears. She learns from the process and admires the person, while acknowledging the sexism in Buddhist practices that consider women as second-class citizens.

What amazes me is that she never mentions that fact that the Dalai Lama was a slaveholder in Tibet before the Maoist revolution in 1949. The omission of this fact seems especially obscene given that Aptheker's father specialized in the study of slave revolts. It is inexplicable to me that Bettina acknowledges the sexism of the religious practice of the Dalai Lama but ignores the slavery that existed in Tibet right up until the middle of the 20th century.

As far as I can tell, this aspect has not been addressed in the various reviews and criticism of this memoir. I suppose I will have to get my act together and send a letter to Professor Aptheker about this subject.


Bitch | Lab said...

woman. i'm speechless. you've talked about some of this before, but what bravery and how put togther you are, considering. i want to just send you a big hug and listen to the rest.

my aunt and mother were abused, mostly emotional abuse, but bizarro things like locking them up and that sort of thing. My aunt calls herself a "blocker". What is always amazing to me is that they never reproduced the cycle. I learned once that they effectively break the cycle by havingkids get involved in something that gives them purpose and meaning and alternative role models. Looking at my mom and aunt, what I saw was that they had grandparents to whom they could turn who fostered hobbies: my aunt learned the fiddle and absorbed herself with that. With my mother, they encouraged reading.

all I recall is that the one time my grandfather went to far with me, my mother got in his face and said something like, "YOu did that to me old man. You aren't going to do it to my kids. Back off." And that was the end of that and my grandfather's emotional abuse: he'd do things like tell me that I caused his hands to be crippled with arthritis. (I have actually had people tell me that this isn't abusive!)

Anyway, thanks for all your support -- formal thank yous coming this weekend coz I'm being a perfectionist wanting to design something pretty! And just thank you for writing these great posts.

Bitch | Lab said...

also, when I get a chance, I might do a link round up. Do you mind?

Ravenmn said...

Hey there, girlfriend! Thanks for commenting. As you probably guessed, survival is a long-term process and I'm pretty old now. I did a ton of work in my 20s and 30s to overcome some of the "brainwashing" (more like trained responses) that asshat created in me.

Of course you can link me.

Odd thing: I so enjoy commenting on other people's blogs and I so seldom post here. I didn't even think to check comments today. It was a nice surprise to see your posts tonight!