Coming to Terms with Kathy Boudin
[orig. title: Coming to Terms with the Past
and Class Struggle on the Left:
The Story of Kathy Boudin - Facts and Fantasy]
by Leonard Lehrman
Family Circle: The Boudins and the Aristocracy of the Left by Susan Braudy; Knopf, 2003; 460 pp., ill. ISBN 0-679-43294-9; paperback, Anchor Books, Nov. 2004, Vintage ISBN 1-4000-7748-6
Kathy Boudin is alive and well, living among friends, adjusting, having been paroled - after 22 years in prison - September 17, 2003. What brought her to prison, and what got her out?
These questions may never be fully answered, at least until she writes her own memoir. But the writer Susan Orr Braudy (Orr for Orlowitz, purportedly descended from Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna), who was two years ahead of her at Bryn Mawr (Classes of '63 and '65, respectively), and befriended her mother, the poet Jean (Roisman) Boudin (1912-1993) in 1974, has made a valiant attempt.
With access to some of Jean's papers and vivid (sometimes fanciful) recollections, she has managed to tell a riveting story, filled with the excitement of political commitment and touches of nudity, sex (wild dance orgies, breast exposure as political statement, escaping naked from a sauna when a bomb accidentally goes off), and violence (a climactic shoot-out on the highway), that prompt one to ask her, as I did, in a telephone interview, whether a movie deal might be in the works. "No," she replied. "I never write books to be movies." Her earlier published works include "Between Marriage and Divorce" (1975), the novel "Who Killed Sal Mineo?" (1981), and "This Crazy Thing Called Love: The Golden World and Fatal Marriage of Ann and Billy Woodward" (1992). "I worked in the movie business and I must say I don't admire it much." ("What the Movies Made Me Do" is the title of another book of hers.) Then, almost as an afterthought - "Though I heard that Steven Spielberg likes the book and might be interested."
If a film is made, one only hopes that it will center on the real story of Kathy's life, and not on what National Public Radio reviewer Maureen Corrigan called the "Freudian melodrama" of this book. In an effort to understand what moved Kathy to support bombings, prison breaks and robberies, until one in 1981 took the lives of two guards and Nyack NY's only black police officer, Braudy decided it was all due to the trauma Kathy must have endured when her father, Leonard Boudin (1912-1989), had affairs that seem, to Braudy, to have driven his wife Jean to two suicide attempts.
Certainly the trauma was real. But to cite it as the overall driving force in her subject's life is demeaning, not just to Kathy but to her whole "Family Circle." So it is no wonder that the family closed ranks and decided to withhold cooperation on the book, sensing that it would inevitably fall, as it does, into that increasingly more common form of study best labelled "pathography," in which a subject's neuroses are examined more closely and given more weight than his/her achievements.
Jean's sister's husband, the great editor and political commentator I.F. Stone (1908-1987), is obviously admired by Braudy. (I once called Morris Schappes "the I.F. Stone of the Jewish Left." Morris said he was flattered.) But relying on Jean, and not having been granted interviews with Stone's children, she gets a lot of things about him wrong. (His father, for example, was a laborer, and hardly "well-to-do.")
There are some fascinating stories about the poet Paul Goodman and the composer Marc Blitzstein and his wife Eva Goldbeck, all of whom were close to Kathy's parents. The documentation is not as scholarly as one would wish, however, and several interviewees have disputed the accuracy of Braudy's descriptions and quotes attributed to them. Braudy also repeats the commonly held but mistaken notion that Alger Hiss was "convicted of spying for the Soviets," when in fact he was convicted of perjury, in a judgment that is still being questioned.
To be fair, Braudy agreed to make some corrections, including the above description of Hiss, and did so in the paperback edition (pp. 44, 57, 103, and 174). On the matter of Leonard's affairs, however, at least one person he is said to have seduced has categorically denied it (in a letter printed in the New York Times). Braudy's response: "I stand by my research," without of course being able to reveal confidential sources who, she admits, would probably not be willing to make any public statements "now."
The most troublesome aspect of the book, though, is not its vagueness and inaccuracies, but the portrait painted of Kathy's father. Leonard Boudin was one of the greatest progressive attorneys of the century. With his arguments before the Supreme Court, he managed to restore the basic right to travel for Rockwell Kent, Paul Robeson, and all Americans, regardless of whether the government agreed with their politics or not.
His leadership of the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee prodded the ACLU into finally taking a stand against McCarthyism. He successfully defended Dr. Benjamin Spock and others accused of conspiracy to disrupt the military draft. And he managed to save Daniel Ellsberg, revealer of the Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam War, from the wrath of the Nixon administration, exposing the government's misconduct to such a degree that it would implode after Watergate, bringing American imperialism to a halt, at least until the current administration.
Yes, Leonard had extramarital affairs. But so did FDR, JFK, and Martin Luther King. Is that what they are primarily remembered for?
Kathy too fought against segregation, poverty, and the Vietnam War in the student movement, SDS, and later in the Weathermen. By 1981, most of her friends had come up from the underground, and she was thinking of doing so too, held back, Braudy suggests, primarily by loyalty to (among others) David Gilbert, the father of her son Chesa. (Raised by friends who had resurfaced, Bernadine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, Chesa became a Rhodes scholar and a respected authority on Venezuela, where he currently resides.)
In 1984, Kathy Boudin was convicted of felony murder for her participation in a 1981 Brinks armored truck robberty that ended in a fatal shoot-out. Gilbert, also a participant, is still in prison, serving a seventy-five-year sentence. (A very moving letter to him from Chesa appears in Letters from Young Activists: Today's Rebels Speak Out, Nation Books, 2005. At a Five Town Forum meeting last September, the author signed a copy to me "With love, rage & hope.") Braudy argues that Kathy got out earlier because "the criminal justice system caters to the rich and privileged," in which she includes the Boudins - part of "the Aristocracy of the Left." In fact, Kathy was ultimately paroled because she could be held legally responsible for only one of the three deaths connected to the robbery; she accepted responsibility and reached an agreement with the prosecution that recommended a sentence which made her eligible for parole after serving twenty years; and she did exemplary work for AIDS sufferers, incarcerated mothers and their children, and teen and prisoner literacy.
Does Braudy think Kathy should not have been paroled? "I don't have an opinion. I hear she did good work in prison. If in another two years she does good work out of prison, I'll have an opinion." In the meantime, though, "I hope nobody ever writes a book about me." Why? "Biographers know," she emailed me, "that no book of this sort is any good if its subjects are happy about it."
Perhaps a book on the topic that does not assume victimhood for its subject, but tries to let the facts speak for themselves, will make at least a few more people happy in the future. SDS is reorganizing, in 200 new chapters across the country. They would have much to learn from Kathy Boudin.
LEONARD LEHRMAN is a composer and co-director of the National Committee to Reopen the Rosenberg Case. His works, including ten operas, have been heard throughout North America, Europe, Australia and Israel.