Overthrowing the father

Bettina Aptheker accuses her Communist dad of sexual abuse, in a depressing memoir of the descent from free speech campaigner to victim-feminist.

James Heartfield

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Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought for Free Speech, and Became a Feminist Rebel, Bettina Aptheker, Seal Press, 2006.

Bettina Aptheker’s memoirs, Intimate Politics, describe a life of radical struggle, as a key figure in the Berkeley Free Speech movement, the campaign against the Vietnam War, and that to free the framed black activist Angela Davis. Her life story mirrors the changes in American society as it passes from the high drama of the Cold War in the Sixties to personal politics in the Eighties and Nineties, with Aptheker coming out as a lesbian, setting up the feminist studies course at Santa Cruz and confronting her own demons.

The big political drama has a special link to Aptheker’s intimate life through her father, Herbert Aptheker, an historian of Negro struggles against slavery and a leading theoretician in the Communist Party of the USA. As a ‘Red Diaper Baby’ she met the singer and activist Paul Robeson, worked as an assistant to the historian WEB Dubois, played with Angela Davis, long before she was persecuted for her Black Panther Party links, and had the English aristocrat-turned-radical-journalist Jessica Mitford for a mentor.

Today’s warm glow of nostalgia for those radical days does not do justice to the real risks that Aptheker and her colleagues took, facing imprisonment, beatings, and in the case of Davis’ lover George Jackson and many others, summary execution. But also the reputation that the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) had for subverting the state does not do justice to the profoundly conservative influence it exercised on radical movements.

There is a small off-shoot of Labour history dedicated to the study of the Western Communist Parties, which debates the extent to which they were simply vehicles for Soviet diplomacy. When they were influential, and their influence was, as I remember, ghastly, the more radical amongst us scored points showing up their subservience to Moscow. But it would be truer to say that the Communist Parties were an outgrowth of Western society. The willingness of the official Communists to champion a tin-pot dictatorship in Russia was symptomatic of their lack of confidence in themselves.

In Aptheker’s early life her family plays a double game of ostentatious radicalism, denouncing America’s secular religion, business, the military and the FBI, while at the same time laying claim to the true spirit of American patriotism. As with the British Communist historian Eric Hobsbawm, the Popular Front of America, Britain and the Soviet Union against Fascist Germany is definitive. Aptheker senior recalled his days as a major in the occupation of Germany with pride. The wartime alliance suggests an honourable American patriotism that has been lost. In his book The Negro and ‘An American Dilemma’, Herbert Aptheker violently rejects Karl Gunnar Myrdal’s argument that the South, too, represented an element of American culture – to Aptheker senior racism was alien to modern American society, a hangover from the pre-modern days of slavery. As he invested unrealistic hopes in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, so his daughter Bettina entertains illusions in John F Kennedy, despite demonstrating against his nuclear brinkmanship with Cuba. It is as if just at the moment that they are breaking with American society, these Communists feel the need to assert their patriotism and even conservatism all the more stridently.

Having sat on the CPUSA’s National Committee between 1966 and 1976, as well as serving as an official and spokeswoman until her resignation in 1981, Bettina Aptheker mildly regrets the party’s justifications for oppression in Eastern Europe in these memoirs. But she is largely oblivious to the reactionary role that official Communism played elsewhere. She recalls her surprise during a visit in 1959 that the offices of the French Communist Party (PCF) are protected by soldiers because of the Algerian War, ‘because I knew that the party would have supported the Algerians in their struggle’ – though in fact the PCF and the Soviets refused to support the National Liberation Front until 1960, and were often in a shooting war with them (1). Even today Aptheker boasts of her role in dissuading Jerry Rubin from confronting the police in Vietnam War demonstrations, and reports that ‘ironically, I enjoyed a reputation in the administration as “the moderate” within the Free Speech Movement leadership’ at the University of California, Berkeley (2). There was no irony. The Communist Party’s scrupulous legalism meant that Aptheker always pursued the constitutional course.

In one important respect Aptheker did rebel against the Communist Party line, in reorienting radical protest from public demands upon the state, or against business, towards the private realm – but this is a negative development that emphasised interpersonal disputes at the expense of social change. She clashed with the party over the analysis of women’s subordination with the party press refusing to publish her doctorate Woman’s Legacy, a snub that precipitated her resignation. Even this rebellion, though, was in a sense a development of the trajectory away from class struggle towards identity politics that the CP had already embarked upon. And though she clashed with the traditionalist leaders of the American Party, she drew upon European Communist thinkers like Louis Althusser and the followers of Antonio Gramsci. Pointedly, Woman’s Legacy drew on her father’s research as well, and similarly derived oppression from the persistence of pre-capitalist relations of patriarchy (3). Though as we shall see, Aptheker’s relationship to her father became the subject of a gruesome inter-generational conflict.

Core to Aptheker’s repositioning was the insistence that the personal is political (4). She argued to include reproduction rights, rape and abuse as women’s issues alongside the party’s priorities of equal pay and employment rights. In time, she came to see her own relationship to the party in terms of sexual politics. She is relieved when therapist David Newman told her that her seduction at the hands of a senior comrade at 18 was ‘entirely inappropriate’ behaviour on his part, having felt guilty towards her friend, his wife (5). Most dramatic, though, is Aptheker’s recollection that her father sexually abused her between the ages of five and 13 (6).

Aptheker’s memory of abuse is all the more extraordinary because it only surfaced 37 years afterwards, in 1995, when she was 50 and her father 80. In one version, Aptheker says that the memory surfaced when ‘in the childhood section, my partner and daughter kept pointing out that the narrative was emotionally flat’ (7) – a stylistic failing that the additional passages on molestation have surely corrected. Up until that time, Aptheker told everyone that ‘I loved [my] parents’ and had the ‘perfect childhood’ (9). In 1984 she told a reunion meeting of the Free Speech Movement that she was proud to be Herbert Aptheker’s daughter, and in 1998, three years after recovering the abuse memory, she republished the same speech. In Flaubert’s novel, Madame Bovary’s husband feels the happiness drain from his long marriage retrospectively, discovering that she has betrayed him. Bettina Aptheker goes one further, discovering that the childhood she had thought perfect was actually a nightmare, upon remembering many years afterwards what happened in it.

Central to Aptheker’s estimate that her epiphany was an actual recollection of real-life events is the belief that memories of traumatic events lie hidden in the sub-conscious, but nonetheless, ‘like an abscessed tooth’ fester and debilitate ‘a person’s psyche with unresolved pain and suffering’ (9). This is to conflate two distinctive mental reactions – the first is memory loss in physical trauma, which can leave people missing the last few hours before a terrible accident; the second is the tendency to avoid unpleasant memories. Aptheker’s suppression of eight years of abuse is on the outer limits of plausibility – except in the rarefied atmosphere of California’s therapeutic community, of which she was an active participant and advocate (10).

The backdrop to her reassessment of her father is her initial adoration but growing resentment at living in his shadow. All through the book, she struggles with a sense of her own inferiority that is projected principally upon Herbert (but also on other strong characters in her radical milieu) (11). Herbert hoped that Bettina would carry on his historical research through the American Institute for Marxist Studies (AIMS), which he founded in the Sixties, and in 1979 Bettina published a collection of Herbert’s essays for AIMS. ‘I could imagine myself as an AIMS director and indulged the fantasy for several years’, she writes. ‘This was in fact the inheritance for which I had carefully been groomed since childhood.’ (12) A role in the development of the women’s studies courses at San Jose and Santa Cruz saved her from that antiquarian fate, but her (Oedipal?) rejection of her father drew on one of the movement’s central preoccupations: recovered memories of abuse.

The abuse memoir is an established genre today, a literary outgrowth of the recovered memory movement, with contributions from Dave Pelzer (A Child Called It), Constance Briscoe (called ‘miss Pissabed’ by her mother) and Kathy O’Beirne (whose abuse and abandonment memoirs are contested by her sisters) (13). And it is a genre popular among the offspring of more famous and especially more radical parents. Ruth First’s daughter Gillian Slovo recalled her abandonment for the struggle against apartheid, just as Joan Crawford’s adopted daughter, Christine, pioneered the revenge memoir in Mommie Dearest (14). At the extreme, Daniel Ortega’s stepdaughter, Zoilamérica Narváez Murillo, swore an affidavit alleging child sexual abuse just before he campaigned for the presidency in the last Nicaraguan election. The passages in Intimate Politics describing Bettina Aptheker’s molestation are sharply crafted (whereas other passages are purple prose) bearing a passing similarity to Anais Nin’s short story of incest, The Little Birds – which would probably have been on a feminist syllabus in the Eighties. Alice Walker’s novel of incestuous abuse, The Colour Purple, gives Aptheker the concepts to describe her feelings: ‘the acts of fathers truly named and reckoned, and above all women cherished.’ (15)

Aptheker describes the release from her father’s habits given in therapy. ‘Suddenly it came to me unbidden: You don’t have to produce…. I didn’t have to write a book a year. I didn’t have to be famous.… I didn’t have to be driven the way my father was.’ (16) It was a revelation that excused her underlying state of guilt that the Eighties California lifestyle was self-indulgent, though some readers might have more sympathy with the criticisms she imagines from her ex-comrades: ‘Communist rhetoric about New Age, non-productive “drug seekers” and “parasites” living off the labours of the working class, who couldn’t afford the luxury of “time off” to find themselves, was about the sum total of my spiritual knowledge.’ (17)

Most destructively, Aptheker’s reconfiguration of the theory of oppression from one that seeks freedom from the state to one that targets interpersonal violence inverts the meaning of her definitive campaign for free speech. Where she resisted the authorities’ attempts to limit opinion in the Sixties, by the Eighties she was identifying the repressive behaviour of men in the Free Speech Movement as the constraint on women’s voices (18). It was a formula that made it possible for colleges to roll back free speech on campus in the name of protecting women from abuse.

The problem with Aptheker’s self-discovery through identifying the wound of abuse, though, is that in re-imagining herself as the injured child, she evacuates responsibility for her own actions as an adult. Well aware that she has some explaining to do having defended the repressive regimes in Eastern Europe, Aptheker effectively dismisses her own culpability. ‘I simply repeated my father’s arguments when asked about Hungary or East Germany or Jews in the Soviet Union’, she explains. ‘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.’ (19) But Aptheker was no gofer, just carrying out orders; she was a long-standing member of the CPUSA’s National Committee.

We can never know beyond Aptheker’s testimony what really happened between her and her father. She insists that he did acknowledge the abuse, though all of the comments of his she reproduces are denials. There is some lack of certainty, which she makes much of, but then he had, by her own account, suffered memory loss through a series of strokes. ‘I understood his erasure’, she writes. ‘He had lived his whole life avoiding memories of the unpleasant, the untenable. It was how he coped – with Stalin, with the war, with his own family. He lived much of his time in a fantasy world of his own making.’ (20) Reading Intimate Politics, one is left wondering which Aptheker it was that avoided responsibility by retreating into fantasy.

James Heartfield is a writer based in London. Visit his website here.

(1) Intimate Politics, p43; Horne, A Savage War of Peace, 1987, p405

(2) pp191, 139

(3) p394

(4) ‘Or more precisely’, she qualifies unhelpfully, ‘the personal reveals the political’; p3, and see pp 54, 60, 103, 223, 305, 299-300, 353-6, 436-9

(5) p311

(6) pp31, 524

(7) Interview with Chris Watson, Santa Cruz Sentinel, 29 October 2006

(8) p330

(9) p421

(10) pp311, 313, 421-3, 436-9, 500

(11) pp27, 45, 57, 83, 87, 91, 107, 155, 209, 210, 215, 216, 230, 282, 294-5, 330, 394, 422, 493-5

(12) p295; the collection was titled The Unfolding Drama: Studies in US History

(13) Well explained by Catharine Bennett, ‘How can we be sure that the pain and abuse in a memoir is true?’, Guardian, 21 September 2006

(14) Gillian Slovo, Every Secret Thing, 1997; Christina Crawford, Mommie Dearest, 1979

(15) p438

(16) p439

(17) p436

(18) p136

(19) pp185-6

(20) p531

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