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Chesa Boudin on Growing Up Radical

Posted on Apr 17, 2009

By Chesa Boudin

(Page 2)

When my plane landed in Miami, I had to go to the bathroom. Once again dread came over me, and I entered the airport restroom with trepidation. I was flabbergasted by what I saw: The restroom was spotless and bright. A wall of mirrors amplified the shininess. There was also air-conditioning. I chose a stall and found to my great relief both toilet paper and toilet seat. How absolutely happy I was to be back in the United States. How thankful. And while I thought this, I knew—as I have many times in my life—that this was the wrong thought to be having.

Toilet paper comes to represent capitalism, and his parents’ politics are so deeply ingrained that Sayrafiezadeh’s abstract childhood preference for comfort leaves him feeling guilty. 

Ma and Pop appear between the book’s covers in all their three-dimensional complexity and contradiction, and, perhaps most impressive of all, Sayrafiezadeh neither loathes nor scorns nor resents them. And yet his memoir of a political childhood forces myriad questions about family: To what extent should parents impose their views on their children? What familial sacrifices can be justified in the name of abstract political struggles? Where does the healthy balance lie between political commitment and family obligation? There are no easy answers to these questions, and certainly Sayrafiezadeh does not purport to resolve them here. The difficult issues he raises are particularly poignant for me because of the similarities—and differences—in our upbringings. 


book cover


When Skateboards Will Be Free


By Saïd Sayrafiezadeh


The Dial Press, 304 pages


Buy the book


As a child growing up I must have asked my parents thousands of times when they would get out of prison. If they had been as dogmatic or disingenuous as Sayrafiezadeh’s parents appear on the page, they might have answered “when the revolution comes.” But unlike a global socialist revolution that—widespread nationalization of the banking industry and global capitalist meltdown notwithstanding—floats far off on a blurry horizon even for the truest of believers, my parents’ prison terms were set hard and fast by a state judge. A radical black nationalist political group organized the 1981 Brinks robbery to raise funds for its operations, but instead it left three men dead and an entire community traumatized. Both of my parents were unarmed, but for their roles in the tragically botched operation my mother, Kathy Boudin, received 20 years to life, and my father, David Gilbert, received 75 years to life. Friends of theirs, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, took me into their family and became my other parents.

Before I can remember and with ample support from my new family, I began to build relationships with my biological parents from the distance that incarceration imposes. My biological parents arranged weekly phone calls and sent letters almost daily. I had to go through a metal detector and steel gates every time I wanted to give my biological parents a hug. Yet my frequent childhood visits to their prisons were joyful reunions that punctuated almost daily contact with all four of my parents. Sayrafiezadeh’s father, on the other hand, used his political commitments to escape parental responsibilities: “My father had again begun to disappear behind this massive workload of revolution, and his phone calls grew increasingly infrequent until they ceased altogether, and our joyful reunions become more like occasional punctuation marks in long paragraphs of silence.” 

My biological parents made every effort to be involved in my life even from the maximum-security prisons where they were confined. Letters, phone calls and visits were the staples of our relationship, but my parents invented creative ways to make the best of the limitations. My dad told me adventure stories on the phone, and my mom read books to me on tape. My dad encouraged me to bring homework on visits, and my mom knitted me stuffed animals for my birthdays. With the support of my new family we built the foundations for loving relationships that allowed me to work through my anger at them and move on to benefit from their support and affection. At home, my other parents were deeply committed to their work, but both chose careers that focused on children, families and the community: my father as an early childhood educator and professor of education, my mother as a professor and director of a legal clinic dedicated to children and family law. The crime of David and Kathy left me with the benefit of four loving parents. 

Yet the facts that my parents made an effort to be loving and engaged from prison and that I ended up benefiting from having four parents hardly justify their crime or that they did it when they had an infant son. Both Sayrafiezadeh and I grew up with parents who might fairly be criticized for letting their political commitments jeopardize their familial obligations. The issues raised about family life and political engagement in the memoir remain unresolved. The extremes that come to mind are clearly problematic: Some abandon children to their fate while others dogmatically exert a specific worldview. Most parents probably err on the side of enthusiastically passing on to the next generation their own particular dogmas. But few people would prefer a parent who passively failed to express any perspective whatsoever. The goal, it seems to me, would be for parents to fully commit themselves to their passions, political or otherwise, but without either limiting their children to the same belief system or ignoring them altogether in the interests of a supposedly higher calling. All people are rife with contradictions, but some live their lives in a way that makes a mockery of their values. It is an unfortunate truism that those who are most ambitious in their commitment to changing the world—whatever their particular vision or system of beliefs—often fail to start at home with those closest to them. As Bertold Brecht writes in his poem “To Posterity,” “Alas, we who wished to lay the foundations of kindness could not ourselves be kind.” 

Sayrafiezadeh’s parents were so committed to the revolution that they neglected him, so focused on organizing the working class that they failed to provide him with many of the opportunities they sought on behalf of the poor masses. My parents took an unacceptable risk that cost three men their lives and turned mine upside down. Sayrafiezadeh, 11 years old in 1979, suffered from the stigma of being from a family that supported the Iranian Revolution even as his classmates were rallying against it because of the hostages in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. I still contend with the stigma of parental incarceration. Both I and Said Sayrafiezadeh grew up without television. Both of our fathers, and my mother, served jail time which would have been avoided if they had put family before politics. Meanwhile, both of us went to school with packed lunches of carrots, wheat-bread sandwiches and yogurt while our classmates enjoyed Twinkies, Wonder Bread and cookies. Both of us found ways to build mainstream lives without totally rejecting our parents or their politics. And we both learned that the experience of being an outsider, of seeing the world a little bit differently than peers did, of learning to love imperfect parents, has myriad advantages. Certainly the lunches no other kids wanted to trade for kept me healthy, and Sayrafiezadeh has a brilliant debut book. 

Chesa Boudin is a student at Yale Law School and the author of “Gringo: A Coming of Age in Latin America” (Scribner, 2009).

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By ardee, May 9, 2009 at 8:35 am Link to this comment

Interesting commentary, all expressing individual views stemming from deep within the poster. I fond none to be a real expression of the politics, the relationships and the times.

I think the commentary here can be extrapolated to understand why this nation has no defenders of conscience, no demonstrations of solidarity with justice, with truth or with morality. We are indeed a spoiled and self centered bunch of asses.

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By OzarkMichael, April 23, 2009 at 6:54 pm Link to this comment

The author’s father is thrown in jail for a time when the religious factions in the Iranian Revolution realize they no longer need the support of the socialists

I wonder when the multicultural socialists of today will find that the rising Islamic power doesnt need them anymore?

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By yours truly, April 22, 2009 at 7:54 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Aren’t these self-proclaimed “Vanguard” parties nothing more than cults, replete with the group think and control mechanisms that can isolate members, not just from the society at large but from their loved ones?  And what a contradiction there is between the elitism inherent in the vanguard concept and the egalitarian world that the Party puts forward for the masses?  But if the Party doesn’t lead who will?  The masses, that’s who, based from the get-go on the principle of one equals one.

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By Chan Mo-rui, April 18, 2009 at 9:48 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Want to know what family problems are for real revolutionaries and their children? Look into what the Chinese communists went through in the 1920s and 1930s.

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By Jean, April 18, 2009 at 5:09 pm Link to this comment
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Mr. Boudin,
Thank you for this review.  I’m a slow reader but will get to Said’s book eventually.
Mainly, as an older Parent, a Parent who has felt guilt at all the wrong things I did and how well my Son has turned out in spite of his Parents, still your words give me comfort that I wasn’t as lacking as maybe I could have been. 
All your Parents sound so Human, so I-don’t-know understandable somehow.  And thank heavens for surrogate Parents who fill in the nurturing gap.
But, mostly, how wonderful you both sound, how brilliant, how sane, how adjusted, how great.
I have always said that my Son at a very early age took charge of his own life and how he was going to live it and it seems you both have done likewise.  What better gift can you give?  I’m awed.  I’m about to turn 65 and just now in the past few days I feel this extraordinary acceptance of myself and all my flaws, but you and Said have somehow always had that.  It’s amazing, really. 
Thank You, both, so much for this wonderful gift of your personal stories.
I can’t wait to email your review to my Son (who, btw, is an Asst. Prin. of a Continuation H.S. who in his 10 years as an educator has focused on at-risk youth.)  I am a substitute teacher and somehow I will share yours and Said’s wisdom with my students.
Jean in San Jose, CA

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By Mark E. Smith, April 17, 2009 at 7:58 pm Link to this comment

Louis Proyect, you may not be aware that most rapes in this country still go unreported, to this day, that even when they are reported, there are few indictments, and that even when there are indictments, there are few convictions. If there had ever been an organization in this country where rapes were not tolerated and were always reported, it wouldn’t have mattered if it was right, left, or off the spectrum, half the women in the country would have joined it immediately. No such organization has ever existed, not even nunneries and covens, and anyone who believes otherwise is living in a dream world.

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By WriterOnTheStorm, April 17, 2009 at 5:03 pm Link to this comment

Lauren writes:
“Wait a minute—that’s an oxymoron—whackjob liberal.”

Lauren, if you’re going to behave like a troll, at least do it right. You’ll have to do better if you want to cause any grief to us liberal truthdig contributors. For starters, we know the difference between an oxymoron and a tautology. Asserting that the term ‘whackjob liberal’ is oxymoronic is just a clumsy compliment. And until you know such things, I kindly suggest that you vandalize a site that better suits your abilities.

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By Lauren, April 17, 2009 at 9:17 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Poor thing.  Both parents sound like far left whackjob liberals.  Wait a minute—that’s an oxymoron—whackjob liberal.

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By rolmike, April 17, 2009 at 7:13 am Link to this comment

Sayrafiezadeh, based on the review and excerpts from his book that the reviewer cites, appears to be [or have been] an unusually “other directed” kid.

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By Louis Proyect, April 17, 2009 at 5:49 am Link to this comment

I have just finished reading this book and am preparing a review for Swans, an online magazine. I was in the SWP for 11 years and know the terrain. I have no doubt in saying that much of this memoir is bullshit. For example, he alleges that after he was raped by an SWP member who was crashing at his mother’s apartment, she called party headquarters to report the incident. Supposedly, a full-organizer told her to forget about it since “everybody has problems under capitalism”. This never would have happened in the SWP because first of all—no matter what a sect it was—it never tolerated such abuse. Second of all, it exposed the party to severe legal consequences by in effect covering up for a felony. I found this book totally obnoxious and third-rate as literature. Given the interest developing around socialism today, I am not surprised that it received glowing reviews in the NY Times and the Washington Post.

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By Frank Goodman, Sr., April 17, 2009 at 5:15 am Link to this comment

This is a thumbnail sketch of life with a fanatic. Fanatics come in all forms. All take an ordinary situation and convert it into a fantastic picture of a conspiracy to prevent comfort or to contrive to circumvent nature.

Fanatic capitalists, fanatic socialists, fanatic Christians, fanatic Muslims, and fanatic anything. The pattern is to convert the ordinary tasks of hunting and gathering into adventures of folly and cooperatives against success.

Life is a food fight. The fight for food is a fight against nature and a cooperative venture to defeat the foes or to scale the barriers between starvation and sufficient nutrition. Humans cooperate with each other at various levels to gain access to nature’s trough. Once there, we fight each other to stay. Watch about a dozen hogs at a trough of slop and you know what I mean.

Humans have raised the trough to an elevated philosophy of supply and demand. We call that economics. It is a play on ecology. Ecology is the description of nature raw. The ecology of humans includes governments, corporations, churches, colleges, labor unions, and sophisticated methods of movement of people and goods. Services are provided to help share in natures bounty enhanced with fertilizers and pesticides. Superstitions are nurtured to oil the worst ill fitting joints in the supply train that serves the food chain.

I know, I have been there, done that and I have the shirt.

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