- Professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz
- Communist and lesbian activist
- Daughter of the late Herbert Aptheker
Born in Fort Bragg, North Carolina on September 13, 1944, Bettina Aptheker is a full-time professor of Women's Studies and History at the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC). She holds a bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley, and a PhD from UCSC's “History of Consciousness” program. Her late father, Herbert Aptheker, was the American Communist Party’s most prominent Cold War intellectual and, as the Party’s “leading theoretician,” a noted enforcer of its orthodoxy. “The Party was everything—glorious, true, righteous, the marrow out of which black liberation would finally come” for him, Bettina writes in her 2006 memoir, Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought for Free Speech, and Became a Feminist Rebel. “While some families embraced religion to believe in and guide their lives,” she adds, “we had Communism.”
Also in her book, Aptheker writes that for 40 years she had repressed the memory of her molestation by her father, and had recovered it only as she sat down in her fifties to interrogate her past. According to Bettina, 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, she adds, he terrorized the girl into silence with a threat. So fearful was the child of losing her father to unseen forces if she spoke the truth, that she suppressed it, keeping the secret eventually even from herself.
Bettina Aptheker's 500-page memoir, ten 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 Aptheker begins her book. And she 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?” – Bettina accused him: You are a molester and I am your victim. “This is worse than Fay dying!” the old man squealed. But the daughter drove on: it happened. Desperation overwhelmed the man. He denied 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 persisted and the old man, increasingly frantic, interjected bizarrely: “You know a great moment in history? Nat Turner was in his cell. One arm chained to the wall.” He was reaching for the legacy and the myths that had sustained him, and he became, in his own mind, one with the rebel slave confronting the jailers who were about to execute him, crying, “Was not Christ crucified?”
“Everywhere in my life there were secrets,” writes Bettina Aptheker. “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 family secrets were sexual. Some were personal, like the fact of her mother’s first marriage, which Aptheker 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. She writes: “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 1953 execution of the Rosenbergs, the martyred saints of the Communist church, as “the political nightmare of my childhood.” 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 the girl were ever to reveal who her parents were, the consequence could 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. Writes Aptheker: “‘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….”
But the girl's fear was unfounded – as Aptheker herself now concedes – for her father was a publicly known Communist. Her mother was merely protecting her from possible repercussions from other children, and unwittingly terrorized her instead.
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 notes, for example, that the stories of his war service were mainly “harrowing.” On one occasion he recalled for his daughter that he had pointed his sidearm at the head of the unarmed mayor of a 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,’” writes Bettina. “The milk arrived but my father still regretted not ‘shooting the sonofabitch anyway.’”
“When I was growing up my father’s fury was most often directed against those in the party he perceived as ‘renegades’,” writes Aptheker – meaning those who had strayed from the ideological path – or those whom he perceived as agents of what he termed the “ruling class.” To the father, Aptheker explains, “these men were ‘bastards,’ and ‘sons of bitches,’ ‘maniacs,’ and ‘liars.’ He snarled these epithets, dumping these men onto the garbage heap of history.” These rages made Bettina anxious as a child that others would regard her father as “crazy.” To be sure, that was how the girl viewed the man when he went into rages at home and when he cried after he molested her.
Bettina's 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,” writes Aptheker. The mother 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 mother's fury expressed itself physically, as Aptheker relates: “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.”
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 was later able to understand as an adult, writing: “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.”
Aptheker recognizes, too, that in her father, the private gulag had its totemic leader, whose perfection could not be questioned; nor could the household’s secrets be revealed without inviting fearsome retribution on them all. She writes: “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” was symbolized by the execution of the Rosenbergs, which occurred six weeks after Aptheker's 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,” writes Bettina. “[T]hen 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.”
“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,” Aptheker adds. 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,” Aptheker concedes. The reason for this is embedded in her next sentence: “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, the leaders of the Communist Party decided that the U.S. 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 roundup 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.
Aptheker arrived in Berkeley, California in 1963 (to attend UC Berkeley), as the radical upheavals of the decade were getting underway. She was 18 and already a member of the Communist 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.”
Bettina's parents had driven their daughter from New York to California, where they deposited her in the home of Mickey Lima, chairman of the Northern California branch of the Communist Party, as well as his wife and 19-year-old daughter. The Lima home was home was “a hub of Communist Party life in the Bay Area,” writes Aptheker. The plan was to have her stay with the Limas until she could find her own place to live.
Shortly after she found an apartment less than two miles from the Limas, Aptheker 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 Limas, 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.” Mrs. Lima 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, Bettina was rescued by the Limas, who located an abortion clinic in Tijuana and gave her the $200 she needed to terminate the pregnancy. Aptheker continued to be friends with Hernandez until he violated his parole and was returned to prison.
As Aptheker entered her second year at Berkeley, she 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.”
Aptheker was inept socially – except as a political activist – and felt herself “deformed.” She felt, for instance, that her breasts were too small and malformed. A giant schism was developing in the foundations of her being. “In the public world,” she writes, “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 Aptheker began an affair with Mickey Lima, whom she calls “Max Martin” in her 2006 memoir. The young woman had come to think of Lima 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,” Aptheker writes. 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.”
The post-political meeting trysts continued, and became sexual, with Lima putting his hand down Bettina's pants. They continued for a year. Writes Aptheker: “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 [Mickey Lima's wife].”
Into the midst of these intimate proceedings, Aptheker's political realities intruded. One day there was a knock at her door and she opened it to find an FBI man making inquiries. She refused to let him in. He told her it would make it a lot easier if she cooperated with him. “I will never cooperate with you,” she said, shutting the door on him, ending the matter (the threat being obviously idle and never followed up). “Given the Party’s semi-legal status and the continual harassment of party members,” the FBI, she reasoned, must have known about her and Lima. “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, Aptheker 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 Lima, and that she needed an intervention since she had been unable to end it herself. She decided that the only way to prevail on Lima to end the affair was to keep it “within the family” – that is, within her new family of Lima and his wife and daughter. She told Mrs. Lima about the affair she had been having with Mr. Lima: “I blurted it out. ‘Max is making love to me.’ Those six words were all I spoke.” Actually, they were six misleading words since, by Aptheker's own account, “Nothing was ever consummated.” The wounded Mrs. Lima threw Aptheker out and stopped speaking to her. The deceiving father denied the affair.
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, Aptheker was its representative on the steering committee of the “United Front” which the campus Left had formed to pursue its protest. 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 Free Speech protests were actually not over the suppression of speech, which would have been unconstitutional. They were protests of a longstanding 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. Addressing a throng of protesters at Berkeley, she felt confident and happy. She writes: “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. Kurzweil was seeking entrée into the inner circles of their Communist life, and he provided Aptheker with “a sanctuary from sexual pursuit, and at least the illusion of heterosexual normality.” In Aptheher's 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, Aptheker's arrest and trial following the disruptions of the Free Speech Movement.
All the while, Aptheker 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. In this maelstrom of politics, marital betrayal, and forbidden sexuality, the domesticity of Aptheker's 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 Aptheker continues, “I did not know how to hold or balance the contradictions in my life.” She 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, Aptheker's encounters with the FBI continued to mark and upend her life. Opening her suitcase to unpack for an antiwar demonstration in Washington, she discovered, on top of her clothes, a layer of pornographic photos of women. This struck fear into her marrow, because it told her that the FBI knew about her lesbian affair, and it led her to: (a) immediately terminate the romance with Martha, and (b) take steps to make her family seem more “real.” Here is how Aptheker puts it: “I went home to Berkeley and asked Jack what he thought about having a baby.” Jack agreed and they become pregnant. However, Aptheker was still facing jail time for her role in the Berkeley protests. In an advanced stage of pregnancy, she entered Santa Rita prison and began bleeding so profusely that she was sent to the prison hospital, where she was raped.
None of these experiences, traumas, and life passages affected Aptheker's forward motion or caused 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, was 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,” she recalls.
At 22, Aptheker was 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.”
In her appearances before campus audiences, savvy New Leftists asked Aptheker about the totalitarian commitment that defined 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.”
Elsewhere in her memoir, 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.”
Six weeks after the arrival of her firstborn, Aptheker returned to “a full complement of political work.” Four months after that, she was 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 describes her psychological symptoms as “acute paranoia” and depression, and claims that she attempted suicide: “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….”
Aptheker claims she did not realize the gun was loaded, yet she was 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 her politics. “This was my way of working out the relationship between the Marxist (social conditions) and the feminist (women’s consciousness and cultures),” she writes. “… 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 Aptheker's radicalism are manifest in a defining series of events in her Party career revolving around two attempts to free George Jackson, a black criminal and political radical who was 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 Aptheker's political imagination.
The facts tell a different story. George Jackson had been incarcerated in Soledad prison for committing five armed robberies (not one as Aptheker claims). He was given an indeterminate sentence and had already spent 10 years in prison when the Soledad murder occurred. This was not because he 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. But these facts are missing in Aptheker’s account (in her 2006 memoir) because they confound her myth of innocence and irrational persecution.
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 that 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 writes, “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. She writes that at a Berkeley protest which she helped to organize at the height of the furor: “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.”
Aptheker helped 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. She writes: “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.” Aptheker 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,” she explains. “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, is revealed in Aptheker's account of the escape attempt which occurred at San Quentin on the anniversary of Jonathan Jackson'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 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, the Jackson drama seized the imagination of the New Left, and his cause became a movement touchstone. Aptheker describes the events as a “watershed in my life.”
In 1976, 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 Aptheker protested her removal to Mickey Lima (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,” she writes, “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 which Aptheker 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 Aptheker a commercial publisher to no avail, and the book 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, Aptheker set out to join a major migration of radical activists from the streets of protest to the faculties of American universities. She signed up for a master's 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. It was, Aptheker writes, “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 Aptheker's arrest record and non-scholarly career skeptically and opposed her appointment, others were “enthusiastic about my arrival,” she recalls, and with the help of the Communist Party’s civil liberties lawyer they prevailed. Aptheker received her master's degree in June 1976 and began teaching a course on the “History of Black Women,” which was jointly offered by two of the politicized departments which radicals had recently created, Women’s Studies and Afro-American Studies.
At the end of the Davis trial, Aptheker 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 Aptheker from a greater loss. “It was my first close friendship with someone who was not in any way associated with the Communist Party,” says Aptheker. 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, Aptheker's 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, Aptheker 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 to Aptheker. Three years later Mary Timothy died from breast cancer, and Aptheker told her husband that she was divorcing him. They had been married for 13 years. “When I asked Jack for a divorce in Februrary 1978,” she writes, “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 Aptheker's 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 Aptheker 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’sWomen: 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 that Aptheker 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,” writes Aptheker. “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.” Aptheker had found a way to integrate her previous ideological existence with the sexual longings she had kept secret for so long, 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 Aptheker a career opportunity through which she could financially support her new independence. She applied for a job at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC). The Santa Cruz region, south of San Francisco, was an area she was attracted to because of its large lesbian community.
To pursue a university career Aptheker 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 “History of Consciousness” 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 Aptheker: “I was not interested in learning one more time what I saw as the patriarchal lineage of American historians,” she writes. In the statement of purpose which the department required her to file in order to be accepted into the program, Aptheker explained that she wanted to “tease the juxtaposition of Marxism and feminism into a unified theory of liberation.”
Aptheker 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.
Now Aptheker's 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 in 1982 as Women’s Legacy: Essays on Race, Sex and Class in American History – a contribution to her new radical enterprise. Says Aptheker: “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 Aptheker 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 Lyndon 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 as a call “for the introduction of patriarchal relations in the Black community” and added: “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 her book’s sixth chapter on domestic labor, Aptheker realized that 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,” she reflects. Pursuing her new feminist interests, Aptheker 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,” she explains, “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.”
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.”
“I was in complete turmoil over [the] letter,” writes Aptheker. “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.”
The refusal of Aptheker's 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 recounts, and 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 Bettina comments, this was “an extraordinary gesture.”
A year later, on October 12, 1981, Bettina Aptheker resigned from the Communist Party. Even then, she delayed the move for 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!”
Bettina's political tract that the Party had 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, the 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.
Aptheker 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. Aptheker immediately converted her class into a political cell meeting: “I redesigned the curriculum,” she rxplains, “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,” says Aptheker. 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 UCSC 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 school's 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,” she writes. But Aptheker's 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!” Aptheker 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.” 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 (Buddhism) to replace the one she had left, this one headed by the Dalai Lama. “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 Aptheker had longed for all her life.
Buddhism brought Aptheker a vision of redemption but also a practical technique for releasing her anger: “I was always denying that I was angry,” she writes. “The process that would work to release anger was not denial and repression, but acknowledgment and dissolution…To dissolve my anger meant to forgive; to forgive meant to practice compassion.”
But Aptheker’s Buddhism is not about compassion; it is about narcissism, the endless embrace of the self-justifying self. When Aptheker took the five vows of a bohisattva, she noted that these enjoined her not to kill, not to steal, to avoid sexual misconduct, to avoid telling lies, and to avoid drugs and alcohol. She took the vows without realizing how hard they would be to keep, a difficulty that eventually led 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.
In a climactic passage in her 2006 memoir, Aptheker presents her Buddha-inspired understanding of the failure of the socialist utopia to which she had dedicated the bulk of her years: “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.”
Aptheker has never shed her unfailing opposition to U.S. military intervention. Appearing at an April 2003 UCSC faculty teach-in against the Iraq war, she proclaimed: “This war in Iraq is an obscenity.” She also claimed to see similarities between the political strategies of the United States under George W. Bush and those of Nazi-era Germany: “We should make no mistake between the kinds of diplomacy Hitler's regime engaged in during the 1930s and the kinds of diplomacy the Bush administration has engaged in. There are direct parallels, and it's very frightening.”
Writing several months later, in the Summer 2003 issue of The Wave (the newsletter of the UCSC Women's Studies Department), Aptheker accused the Bush administration of “[i]mplementing a proto-fascist program of racist abuse directed especially toward peoples of Arab heritage, while giving license to the worst forms of persecution of all peoples of color.”
Aptheker has also labored to bring anti-Israel activism to the UCSC campus. She once signed an open letter to the U.S. government demanding the cessation of all American aid to Israel. In the summer of 2002, she authored an article in The Wave pledging support for Palestinian terrorists, whom she described as “anti-occupation activists,” and she applauded Israeli reservists who refused to serve in the “occupied territories.”
Aptheker describes her teaching philosophy as a “revolutionary praxis.” The crux of this approach, she says, is to subvert the traditional mission of the university by breaking down the distinction between subjective and objective truth – what Aptheker dubs “breaking down dualisms.” This approach is especially relevant to Women's Studies, Aptheker notes, because it allows her to inject a “women-centered perspective” into the curriculum to correct what she describes as the “male-centered” bias of traditional university study. Aptheker has based an entire course around her notion of a feminist pedagogy, called “Feminist Methods of Teaching.” She has also taught a graduate-level course titled “Feminist/Radical Pedagogies.”
For more information on Bettina Aptheker, click here.
* Most of this profile is excerpted and adapted from: “The Political Is Personal: Bettina Aptheker's Odyssey to Nowhere,” by David Horowitz (November 10, 2006).