Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Aptheker Redividus

As I follow up my recent blog and teeny tiny furor over the somewhat disingenuous presentation of the works of the historian Herbert Aptheker, I thought I would get around to reading Bettina Aptheker’s much discussed memoir of a few years ago, Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought for Free Speech, and Became a Feminist Rebel. Well, it’s a very interesting book, about her complex relationship with her complex parents (though, to paraphrase Tolstoy, every family is unhappy, and every family is unhappy in different ways, and that is what we have in common), the Communism of a dutiful daughter, her feminism, her coming to terms with her lesbianism, her Judaism, and her discovery of Buddhism and the Dalai Lama and spirituality.

However the book is best known for her accounts of how, when she was a very young girl, she was regularly sexually abused by her father, who masturbated on her naked body. The account of this is utterly convincing, and if the account of actual incidents comprise only a small portion of the book, her dealing with its consequences dominate the latter sections of the book. Her father is not presented as a monster, and the account of how she finally was able to talk about it with him, is quite brave and moving, and quite forgiving, both towards her father, and towards herself. If it doesn’t do much to increase one’s admiration for Herbert Aptheker as a person or scholar, neither is it a mean-spirited daddy dearest sort of attack.

The main quality that comes across in Bettina Aptheker’s account of her father is that of obliviousness, an indifference to seeing the world as it actually is, and the deep conviction that if one tries hard enough and uses sufficient force, the world can be crammed and stuffed into one’s pre-existing mental categories. This is of course the way Herbert Aptheker and other doctrinaire Communists approached life, dividing everything into things that either were illustrations of underlying truths or anomalies to be explained away. The only question to ask of every fact is “which side are you on?” And it is clear that when he came upon an inconvenient fact or inconvenient person, his basic strategy was to yell and scream and attempt to intimidate his opponent into silence, or at least into not want to talk to him any more. One can judge ex-communists in part by evaluating the length of time it took them to become exes. Aptheker essentially never left the party. (Bettina, who left around 1980, didn’t set any land speed records either.)

And this obliviousness to the anomalous carried over to his personal life, where he had largely forgotten or obscured his sexual crimes against his daughter, and used his anger to ward off difficulty people and situations, and from this arose his daughter’s conviction that spirituality was an essentially component of any political problem; only those have dealt with their souls, and their own suffering, can address the suffering of others. Bettina Aptheker writes that much of his father’s problems was perhaps be traced to the fact that when he was a young man, his beloved brother had committed suicide, something he had never discussed with anyone. ( If I were a Marx today, looking for a key that would unlock the secret of human history, it would not be class struggle, but suicide.)

Aptheker comes across as a man who really did not know himself, and because of this, hurt himself and hurt others. In the end, when he died, this man who had always scoffed and mocked his Jewish background, asked his daughter to say Kaddish over his grave. She complied.

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